There’s a chill in the air again, it’s getting dark earlier, and Halloween is just around the corner. So to prepare you for winter’s icy embrace here is a fractured fairy tale of sorts–a reboot of the classic German folk tale The Blue Light (also done by Hans Christian Andersen as “The Soldier and the Tinderbox”). This time, the story is set in Germany in January 1946. Then, as now, be careful what you wish for. “War is Grimm” was originally published in the American quarterly Weirdbook (Number 37)
He had liked the chocolate. Greasy American stuff and sickly sweet but almost better than a Lucky Strike for a pick-me-up—if you could manage to steal it off some kid. But now the Americans had left and the new masters had arrived and these did not bring with them chocolate, chewing gum, or cigarettes. Just hatred.
The soldier pulled at the threadbare cuffs of his overcoat which dangled over his chapped hands like lampshade tassels. The year was beginning worse than the last, even if the Reich was now burned to ashes and with it most everyone he had known. Yesterday, Beltzer had taken his gloves along with ten cigarettes—the price to keep his mouth shut. A little blackmail game that had swallowed him up whole since his return home. The others in the work party were just as bad but Beltzer was the boss and all the swag, one way or another, went to him to be divided as he saw fit. The six of them had stopped on the side of the logging road, huddling against the sharp January breeze that blew up little whirlwinds of icy snow that cut one’s face like ground glass.
“I want the gloves,” insisted the soldier. “I’m the one walking furthest off the road to find the wood so I’m the one who needs them.”
Beltzer’s laugh ended in a cough while his best mate, another black market chancer by night, broke into a yellow-toothed grin, his breath condensing in the wretched cold. “You know,” said Belzer, “the Russians rounded up another four SS guys yesterday. You don’t want to make it five do you?”
The soldier looked down at his boots, yawning up at him minus their laces. The bare birches were mocking him, squeaking and creaking with laughter. He had been SS and still had the tattoo on his inside bicep to prove it. Now a mark of Cain. Yet he bucked up his courage a little just the same. “Fuck you. They wouldn’t be interested in me anyway. I was drafted into it for the Ardennes. None of us got a choice, we all got screwed.”
Belzer poked the soldier’s chest. “You want to bet your life on it? I hear the Russkies get a bounty for every one of you bastards they bring in.”
Whether true or not he didn’t care to find out. The Russians had taken over the Harz region six months earlier, Wernigerode included. Some deal with the Yanks that had fucked anybody living on the wrong side of the mountains. And the Russians did what they wanted. Took what they wanted. The soldier didn’t answer Belzer but just turned to look at the sledge piled high with logs and brushwood.
One of the others piped up, a spotty kid with his hair so short you could see the scabs on his scalp. “Come on, Belzer, I’m freezing my balls off out here. Let’s go trade this load for some coffee and cigs.” Belzer gave the youth a glare and wiped some snot from under his nose. They’d been out for five hours and the temperature was dropping with the sun. Belzer’s mind ran through the options: give some wood to the commissar’s office and brown-nose a bit, flog the rest, then get some lentil stew. He decided in his infinite wisdom of life on the Soviet side of the border that he could call it a day. Might even give them more time to plan a raid on a couple of farmhouses he knew about a few miles out of town.
He turned back to the soldier. “Tell you what. You stay out and scout for more deadwood. For tomorrow’s run. Mark it near the road. We’re going to head back with the sledge.”
The soldier blinked away a gust of ice crystals. “What do I get, arschlocht, for doing that?”
Belzer grinned. “I give you something.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pair of hole-shot woollen gloves and proffered them to the soldier. “What? You were expecting an interzone pass or something? Jesus, you really are an idiot.”
The soldier pressed his nails into his palms and the pain enlivened his frozen hands. But he reached for the gloves just the same. Belzer flashed him a grin again. “There’s a lad. And you only have to give me five cigarettes tomorrow instead of ten. Fair enough?”
“It’s not going to last forever, Belzer. Maybe not even another week.”
His tormentor gave a dramatic shake of his head. “I just have to say one word to that Russian lieutenant who hangs out at the market—Werewolf. They’ll have their boots on your neck before you can even piss your pants.”
The soldier looked down as he pulled on the gloves. The others snickered and turned away. “Off you pop now,” Belzer cracked. “We’ll see you in the square for supper in a couple of hours, eh? If there’s any left.” Two of the men grabbed the ropes on the sledge while the spotty kid helped turn it from the back, steadying the wobbling load of firewood. The soldier blinked a few times to clear the crystals on his lashes and then walked into the woods, his feet sinking into the snow. He didn’t look back.
The soldier wandered, half-hearted in his search. The forest rose up in front of him, birch giving way to dark pine, a soaring canopy of blackish evergreen that muffled all sound. For a little while he thought about lying under the low sheltering branches, back up against a rough trunk and just going to sleep, forever. His mind drifted back a few months, to the swelter of August, when the Americans had opened the gates to his camp and let him go. Him and everybody else. Too many mouths to feed, they said. And if you weren’t a POW anymore the US Army didn’t have to feed you. So he had trudged back home to the Harz, to Wernigerode, flea-ridden and destitute. His parents were gone so he did what he had to, fell in with whom he had to. And bastards like Belzer knew how to survive, even how to thrive, in a dead-eyed world of despair.
The sun was just a small orange blob winking at him low through the trees. He realized he didn’t have the pocket torch they shared. And part of him didn’t really care. Facing west, the bald Brocken in front of him high above and distant, he kept walking. He hadn’t gone far when he saw light through a dense stand of trees. A cottage. Likely some forester’s hovel he thought as his feet started moving him towards it. It was a dilapidated mess, shingles falling off, but someone was there. The soldier knocked. And waited.
The woman who answered, middle-aged, honey-brown hair streaked with grey, did not look alarmed or even surprised to see him standing there, a derelict with ill intentions. She gave him a tilt of her head and ushered him inside without words. The warmth hit him immediately: a fire crackled gustily in a stone hearth. As he stepped inside, clumps of wet snow dropping off his boots, he quickly saw the cottage had but two rooms.
“Food?” she asked. The soldier wasn’t sure whether she was offering it or expecting it. He took it as an invitation though and nodded. She motioned for him to sit on a trestle bench and then took a bowl down from a cupboard and went to a stewpot that stood on a tripod near the fire. He watched her. Her hair was tied back with a red bandana, pulling her gaunt face tight and giving her a look of meanness. But he had to admit she wasn’t bad looking as he watched her bend over the pot in her blue twill trousers, bunched and tucked into her black rubber boots. While he waited he took in his surroundings, the smell of the stew exciting him even more than the woman. Sparse. A big wooden armchair, a table and two benches, a couple of oil lamps, black lacquer sideboard, some rug throws, and an old green sofa that looked like it had collapsed on itself. A long, birch-twig broom stood propped in a corner. Some old photos on the wall and a cheap bakelite Deco clock that didn’t seem to be working. Motes of dust floated through the air, gently drifting towards the sputtering hearth. She called to him as she stirred slowly, then ladled the steaming stew.
“You in one of those work parties then?”
She turned, gripping the bowl in both hands. “A bit late for it, no?”
The soldier forced a smile. “I’m scouting for firewood. Dead trees that have already fallen.”
She nodded and offered him the bowl. “Let me get you a spoon.” His eyes followed as she moved over to the sideboard, hips swaying ever so slightly, and she came back with a spoon for him. “All alone today? No comrades?”
She had sharp features, and pretty eyes. Sort of green mixed with blue. As he reached up for the spoon his eyes flitted to where her blouse fell open. “They left for town before me.”
The soldier returned her an awkward smile and hefted the bowl in his throbbing hands, all pins-and-needles now that the blood was circulating again. “Thank you.” His teeth clacked on the spoon as he gulped a mouthful of the stew, molars sinking into a lump of meat that was fatty, chewy and satisfying. It had been an age since he had tasted pork.
“I haven’t been into town for a while,” she said. “Not since the Russians came.”
He shovelled in another spoonful and wondered about how she survived out in the woods. Maybe she got things from a nearby farmer. But there weren’t any up here. “Just as well,” he replied after a pause, “it’s no place for a woman these days. Everyone’s an animal.” The fire had eased his aches now that he was thawing out. He dipped the spoon and had another bite, this time getting a potato chunk. “You on your own now?”
She studied him a moment. “Is that a proposal? Or are you just sniffing around…for you and your comrades.”
“Just curious. It’s your business.” He scraped the last few gobbets of meat onto his spoon and then into his mouth. “That was good. Very good. I’m grateful to you.”
His eyes widened a little. Now that was a rare treat. “If you’re offering…Have you lived here for the whole war?”
She lifted a terracotta jug from the sideboard and swept up a couple of shot glasses in her other hand. “Oh, I’ve lived in this wood for a long time. Very long time.” She threw him a smile that bore a glimmer of mischief and poured him a measure. “And I have a few cigarettes left. Go sit on the couch.”
The soldier felt himself becoming uneasy, a slow unsteady slide. She was either trying to placate him into being nice so he wouldn’t rape her or—and this came to him rather suddenly—she wasn’t the least bit afraid of him. But he obeyed and moved over to the overstuffed sofa, a ruined soufflé, sinking down in it. His eyes followed the packet of cigarettes as she caught it up in her hand. “You haven’t asked anything about me yet,” he said.
She stood over him and extended the packet. Kurmarks. He hadn’t seen those in a year.
“You were a soldier. Captured. Released. What else is there, na?
He managed another awkward smile as he lit up the glorious tobacco.
“I need some chores done around here. Some wood chopped. If you want some food in return.”
He had nothing to lose. “Sure. Tell me what you need done.”
“And I’ve lost something out back. Something sentimental. I know where it is but I need some help to retrieve it. A cigarette lighter.”
The soldier shrugged. “Sure.”
She looked at him with her strange eyes, those colours fighting one another, studying him in just half a moment. “Let’s drink to the arrangement then.” And she handed him his schnapps. “You might as well stay here for the night. You’ll get lost in the dark.” The last was delivered with a flatness that carried certainty, even threat.
It would be dark very soon. That was true enough. He’d probably freeze to death before he got halfway back to Wernigerode. “I’d be obliged, Fraulein…?
She didn’t help him with her name. “You can stay there on the couch. If I hear my door open, I’ll kill you. Understand?”
He woke to the smell of coffee, acrid and pungent. Coffee. She was standing over him with a cup, smiling. He hadn’t slept so well in months, maybe ever. He nodded his thanks and wrapped his fingers around the cup.
“I’ll fry up some sausage and potatoes,” she said, turning to move to the stove. “Then we can go out back to the bunker. I’ll show you what I need done.”
His belly full, he followed her out back through the trees, the sun casting a feeble warmth in the bitter air. About a hundred metres away was a squat concrete blockhouse and the soldier thought it some Wehrmacht storage hut or ammo dump. The snow had blown up high against the side but he noticed a door that was chained and padlocked. A rusted steel ladder with round rungs and bolted to the concrete wall led up to the flat roof.
“So, you lost something inside?” he asked, craning his head up at the slabs of concrete.
She smiled again, sheepishly. “Yes, my lighter dropped down the hatch while I was standing up top.” She reached down and brushed the snow from a coil of rope near the door. “Climb up and I’ll show you.”
The flat roof was free of snow: black bitumen that looked like ancient elephant hide, wrinkled and bubbled. There was a square steel hatch near the middle and he squatted down to peer into the darkness. She settled down next to him, shoulder to shoulder, smelling of ration soap. “I couldn’t go down, you see, as there’d be no way to climb out. But with two of us, you can. Get the lighter and I will pull you up on the rope.” And she handed him a little square battery torch, something from a bicycle. The soldier leaned back from the opening and looked at her.
“I find the lighter and you pull me out?”
“That’s right. I’ll tie the rope around my waist and pull you up. But you will have to shimmy too.” She wiped a lock of hair from her face. “I’m not that strong, you know. Older than I look.”
The soldier chewed the inside of his cheek. “Alright. Give me the torch.”
His boots echoed as he hit the concrete floor, about a two and a half metre drop down. He saw her face framed above him, a short and disappearing length of rope swaying before it. “Go on,” she said, her voice suddenly urgent. “Start looking. It’s brass. Should be there somewhere.” The soldier looked around, his torch casting a yellow beam. All around him was broken glass, the smell of piss, empty metal lockers that looked like coffins all lying at drunken angles. But there was nothing there. He moved the beam to the floor around him and scanned it. He saw it almost instantly. Square and shiny on the concrete floor. It was ice cold as his fingers grasped it and he held it to his eyes, curious as to why she wanted it so badly. It was rather plain, no inscription, old but not that old.
“Throw it up here to me!” She sounded agitated. Almost scared.
“Lower the rope to me. I’ll bring it up.”
There was a long silence. “I wouldn’t want you to drop it. Just toss it up here. Then I’ll pull you up and we can go have a bowl of hot stew.”
She smiled down at him again. And the soldier knew then something wasn’t right. He flashed the lighter with the torch and it shone back at him, enticing him. If this is what she wants and he does toss it to her, he thought, then she wouldn’t have much of a reason to get him out at all.
“I said throw it up here!” She was waspish now, her face contorted. The soldier swallowed and decided to push his luck.
“No. Tie off that rope on something. I’m coming up.”
Her voice, calm, was laced with ice; the mask now cast aside. “Then we’ll see if you change your tune in a few hours. Once your bones freeze and the torch is dead. And you’re alone in the dark.” She slammed the hatch shut, the daylight winking out with a clang.
He knew he was trapped and the madwoman his only way out. But she wanted the lighter. Badly. As long as he held it she would be back for him. Already the torch was failing, going dimmer. He would be in pitch darkness before long. He fumbled in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, found one and tucked it between his lips. She had to come back. She couldn’t leave him here. He hefted the lighter. Maybe it’s gold. Why else did she want it so badly? He raised it and flicked it to light his smoke. A long blue flame sparked to life, purplish-blue as if from a gas stove. It was like nothing he had seen before. His cigarette crackled and he snapped the lighter shut.
“Looks like you need a hand.”
The soldier let out a shout, his heart jumping, and he frantically waved the torch in front of him. It was the voice of a child, no, different– squeaky, but adult. And then the torch spilled upon the source. The soldier gaped. It was a tiny man, maybe half a metre high, dressed in an SS major’s uniform. He looked just like the midget he had seen in ‘37 in Berlin, in a film about some circus freaks. The midget’s black boots shone glossy in the fading torchlight, the silver Totenkopf on his cap glinting. The soldier stammered.
“You, you were here all the time? How?”
The manikin smiled up at him. “I’ve always been here. Question is, do you want to leave?”
The soldier nodded dumbly, still shell-shocked.
“Then follow me.”
The midget did not need the light and the soldier shuffled behind him. They walked to one end of the blockhouse, crunching broken glass underfoot. “Push open the door, my friend.” The soldier shoved and the steel door shifted easily on its hinges, swinging wide and bathing them in the light of day. They stepped outside and the soldier blinked, unable to take his eyes from the little man.
The midget tugged at the brim of his cap. “She’ll be furious. She will, you know—now that you have the light.”
The soldier squinted. “What the hell are you?”
The midget smiled up at him. “You hold the blue light. I serve you.”
“I don’t understand.” A sharp gust blew past them, swaying the bare branches.
The little man smiled again. “Yes you do. Everybody does. What do you want of me?”
The soldier’s tongue wet his lips as he looked around the trees. “Where is she now?”
The midget nodded and gave a wave for the soldier to follow him. And they headed back in the direction of the cottage. There was a woodshed nearby and the little man gestured for the soldier to look down at a mound in the snow, then laid a finger aside his nose. He bent down and wiped the snow away, revealing what lay beneath. “She makes good stew, doesn’t she? Well, this is her larder.”
The soldier staggered back a few steps when he saw the body of a child, naked and frozen blue. Large chunks of flesh had been neatly sliced from its thighs and buttocks. Mercifully, the boy was face down. The soldier gagged and fell to his knees, stomach rolling, and an instant later the sausage breakfast spewed into the snowbank. Then he saw other little feet and hands protruding from the snow, stiff and grey as the ash saplings around them. He wiped his mouth with his coat sleeve. “Where is she?”
The midget pointed to the cottage and the soldier pulled a short spade sticking out of the snow nearby. He was about to ask the little man something more but he was gone. Vanished, tiny tracks ending where the soldier stood, trembling. His hands tightened about the spade handle and he began to trudge towards the cottage. When the soldier burst in, the woman froze for a moment, the word scheisse coming from her lips as she instantly realized how he had managed to get out. Then she shook her head as if cursing her own stupidity. “It won’t end like you think it will.”
The soldier was almost shivering with rage, knuckles white around the shaft of the iron spade. He saw that she looked older. Actually, old.
“He’s a clever one, that little kerl. And he’ll get the better of you, believe you me. Give me the lighter before you regret ever having seen it.”
The soldier’s heart pumped madly—he could feel it thumping away in his chest—his mind not quite sure what to do, stomach still churning with the last bits of the children he had eaten. “You bitch,” the soldier said, shaking his head, still unbelieving. “You murdering…witch.”
She sprang for the sideboard and wrapped her fingers around a black-steel Tokarev automatic, wheeling again to level it at him. The soldier swung the spade and it smashed into her arm with a ringing sound, sending the pistol flying and her sprawling to the floor. He stepped back and then raised the spade again up over his head.
The woman let out a croaking laugh and pushed herself up, cradling her hand. “You liked the food well enough, comrade. And you’ve done far worse in the war, haven’t you? You soldiers always do. I have seen it.” She spat on the floor and turned her blazing eyes up to him. “You don’t think a wolf can sniff out another wolf? I’ve known your kind for a long, long time.” She placed splayed fingers under her eyes and then slowly started to turn her hand towards him. Those eyes stripped him bare in an instant, looking into what was left of his soul.
And he didn’t like it. He swung the spade down on her head with a dull crack. And he struck her again with both hands with all his strength. And then, a third time. He stifled a gasp and fell back onto the sagging couch, shaking. It was quiet and the cottage seemed to grow heavy around him. The woman lay near the table, a red pool widening around her. The soldier pulled out the lighter and flicked the wheel, the blue flame jumping to life again. In the armchair across from him, the little man sat with folded arms. “Lost your temper, didn’t you?”
“Get me away from here. You can do that, can’t you?”
The little man laughed, high-pitched, like a naughty child. “It doesn’t work that way, my friend. You’ll have to do the walking back to town. Try again.”
The soldier fought his nausea. “My tattoo. Get rid of it.”
The midget gave him a knowing wink. “Done.” And in the blink of an eye he was gone.
In Wernigerode, people shuffled from house to house, bundled against the chill, speaking in hushed tones. Furtiveness born of fear. There, in an alleyway off the market square, a man in a tattered greatcoat hunched, a blue glow emanating from his cupped hands as he lit his cigarette. At his knee, a miniature SS officer looked up and grinned.
The soldier’s low voice did not mask his desperation. “An interzone pass. Get me one.”
The little man reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a buff-coloured piece of paper and handed it up.
The soldier looked around, anxious. Out in the square, he could make out a small group of men on the corner. Belzer and his cronies huddled together, no doubt planning something while at the same time trying to look innocent. From his vantage in the alleyway the soldier could see how they shuffled about guiltily, the eyes of Russian soldiers drilling into them from across the square. He looked down at the strange thing standing at his knee, a thing out of a child’s tale, a thing that shouldn’t be there but somehow was. “I wish you were less…conspicuous,” he hissed at him. “It’s rather poor taste.”
The little man shrugged. “Then task me again. And I shall be gone.”
The soldier bent down and whispered, the words deliberate and slow.
Belzer and his friends spotted the soldier as soon as he had entered the square and were on him before he took ten steps, enveloping him in their false camaraderie. “Did you build yourself an igloo out there last night?” Belzer asked. The spotty kid sputtered with laughter. Belzer poked the soldier in the chest. “If you found a house out there you better had tell us all about it. Or I’ll just whistle up those Russkies standing on the corner.”
The soldier looked at Belzer’s eyes, cold and shiny, noticing how very wolf-like they actually were. He didn’t answer.
“What? Nothing to say? Well, you can start by handing over some cigs. It’s my pay-day.”
The soldier’s gaze moved across the square to the brown-clad soldiers that were now coming towards them, machine guns slung over their shoulders. One of Belzer’s boys tapped him and they fell silent as the Russians approached.
An officer stepped forward and asked for their papers. His German accent was very good, well-practiced even.
“He’s the one you’re after,” mumbled Belzer as he rummaged through his pockets while thrusting a chin towards the soldier. “SS man. Seen his tattoo.” The Russian looked at the soldier, his dead grey eyes looking him up and down. He then motioned to his men who seized the soldier and stripped off his coat. The soldier was as passive as a shop dummy as the coat fell to the cobbles. They tore off his shirt, buttons popping, and revealed his pale, blue-veined flesh. Pure and unmarked. Belzer’s jaw went slack.
The soldier’s voice was calm as he faced the Russian lieutenant, a whisker-less boy who had seen more in five years than most grandfathers had their whole lives. “He’s the one you’re looking for.”
Belzer cursed as he was stripped of his coat but he fell silent, bare chested and shivering, once the black ink was revealed on the inside of his bicep. The officer lifted the arm roughly, brows beetling.
The soldier gave Belzer a small, self-satisfied smile.
“Take him,” ordered the lieutenant, and Belzer was hauled away, shocked, eyes as big as saucers and stuttering cries of innocence tumbling from his lips. As soon as the Russians and their prisoner were on the other side of the street, Belzer’s comrades fought over his shirt and coat like snarling strays. The soldier retrieved his own clothing and walked away. West, and out of town. He did not look back.
The soldier began whistling—badly—once he glimpsed the American checkpoint on the road a hundred metres ahead. He’d been walking for hours, feet numb. His mouth was dry. He stopped and pulled out the lighter and fumbled for his last cigarette and managed to light it with a shaking hand. The midget was once again at his side and the soldier noticed he had now awarded himself an Iron Cross, first-class with oak leaf cluster. “I need some money…and a packet of Kurmarks.” The midget nodded, smiled, and then tugged at the soldier’s coat pocket. The soldier reached inside and felt the wad of notes and the smokes. He looked down again at the little man. “This interzone pass…it is genuine? It will get me through?”
“Would I lie to you? You hold the blue light.”
That cherubic face from the midget in the movie—from the screen of that kino in Berlin a lifetime ago—that same face was staring up at him, beaming confidence. The soldier swallowed the lump in his throat, took a drag, and forged ahead towards the black and white barrier. His hand in his pocket clutched the pass and the lighter while he eyed the gum-chewing GIs that were standing there, huddled in the cold. There was no one else on the road and they stopped talking once they spotted him. The soldier could hear his blood roaring in his ears but he still heard one of the Americans demand his papers in bad German, not well-practiced.
The interzone pass and the lighter came out in his clenched fist, together. His shaking hand tried to unfold it but the GI snatched it away and the brass lighter tumbled into the dirty slush at his feet. Before he could bend to reach it, the GI had beaten him to it, holding it firmly in one hand while he studied the pass in the other. The American gave him a long hard look, as if he was deciding whether to give him a kicking. But then he handed the paper back to him with just two fingers, as if it were tainted. “OK, fuck off! Mak schnell!”
The soldier was paralyzed, his eyes on the lighter that the GI was now examining. The corporal next to him added his own encouragement. “You heard him, buddy. Fuck…off. You can go through.”
For one endless moment the soldier locked eyes with the man holding the blue light and the words sat on his tongue, desperate to come out. His mouth opened and then he saw the Yank move his hand to his holster. The soldier blinked a few times and before he actually realized it, his feet had propelled him into the American zone. He did not look back.
The GI entered the sentry box and stamped his feet, grinning at his prize. He pulled out a Lucky Strike, put it in his mouth, and flicked the lighter. The blue flame surprised him but not half as much as the voice at his side, a voice that sounded like something out of the Wizard of Oz.
“Hey pal,” it squeaked, “Got a light?”
© Clifford Beal 2017
Here’s a short story of mine that appeared last month in the British Fantasy Society Journal (issue #13). It’s a creepy contemporary tale about something old and something new as well as a lesson in when to leave well enough alone. I got the idea from a Victorian cast iron bread oven that is built into the cellar of our home (once the village bakery). My thanks to the oven and to the BFS for allowing me to reproduce the work here.
It was the clincher. The defining feature that sold the house to them. The estate agent hadn’t given them the hard sell either but, rather, let the slightly bedraggled 18th century cottage just ooze its charm quietly. As James and Claire made their way down to the cellar, the stairs creaking beneath their feet and heavy ancient timbers sagging overhead, the agent had said something like: “You’ll really just love this.”
They found themselves in a large, well lit room with a high ceiling and a door that led outside to the back garden up a flight of stone steps. And most of the back wall was taken up by a Victorian cast iron bread oven: one great hinged door that was for the oven itself and a smaller door to the right for stoking the firebox.
Claire couldn’t suppress her joy. “My God, it’s just gorgeous! James, look at this!”
James smiled and took his hands out of his pockets, and ran his fingers across the cast iron door, rapping it with his knuckles. The estate agent gently stepped in front and opened the door fully, sending a loud squeak across the cellar as the hinges groaned a complaint.
“This was the village bakery back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And this oven was put in around 1855. It’s an original John Kemp and Sons cast iron monster. Fancy making some bread?”
Claire looped her arm through James’s and purred. “I’ve always wanted to start baking again. You know, like a cupcake business. Red Velvet and carrot cake. Everything.”
James raised an eyebrow. “Claire, this is a seriously old oven… and it looks a little out of action.”
The estate agent knew exactly what to say. “Well, you know, there’s nothing really to stop you. The house isn’t Grade Two listed. At least, not yet. That said, most of the others on the street are, and from what I understand the council will be looking at this house as well in the near future. If you were to, say, refurbish it, you’d have to act soon. But they couldn’t stop you.”
Eight weeks later they were moved in. Vacant possession. And at the end of ten weeks came the day that James had been dreading ever since Claire had talked him into the idea: the day the contractor came to have a look at the oven. James took a swig from his second cup of coffee and refilled the toddler’s bowl with Shreddies. Ollie had somehow managed to eat the first bowl leaving most of the milk, and more than a few of the malted squares lay strewn about the tray of his high chair. He gave his father a grin and dug in, flipping yet another few squares into the air.
“Come on, mate, keep them on target!”
Claire dumped a foil packet of Whiskas into a bowl near the kitchen back door, then gave the cat flap a push to make sure it wasn’t locked. “Have you seen the cat today? His milk bowl is dry but I haven’t seen him for days.” She looked out the window of the kitchen door, down into the overgrown rectangular garden that sloped towards a brick wall and the wood beyond. The trees were swaying gently in the autumn breeze.
James grabbed some kitchen roll and set to work mopping up the disaster on Ollie’s tray. “I wouldn’t worry yet. He’s a tom and he’s still probably busy spraying every vertical object within half a mile. He’ll turn up.”
Claire looked up to check the time and then remembered they hadn’t put the wall clock up yet. “John said he’d be here at half eight. What time is it now?”
“Just gone eight.” He pulled up Ollie’s bib and gave him a wipe around the mouth. “I can stick around for him but only till about nine and then I’ve got to dash.”
“You just want butter on your toast? No jam?” Claire pushed her way through the clutter on the counter top, looking for the dish.
“Just butter, thanks, cupcake.”
Claire groaned. “Stop calling me that!”
“You’re the one going into craft baking on an industrial scale.” He turned to Ollie who was now hammering away at his tray with his spoon. “You want some toast, pal?”
Ollie nodded. “Yes!”
James smoothed his son’s wayward brown hair. The boy was two and a half, just about too big now for the high chair and growing fast. And fast on his feet too. That reminded James he had to get the child gate put in at the bottom of the stairs, and his heart sunk at the thought of adding yet another item to his To Do list that was already as long as his arm. It seemed every room needed plaster and paint. At least the outside of the stone and clapperboard house was in good nick. “You know, if this place does get listed by the council, we’re going to be in for some big bills.”
Claire set down the plate of toast on the farmhouse table which took up most of the kitchen floor. “Don’t worry about what hasn’t happened yet. Besides, they’re usually only concerned about what’s on the outside, aren’t they?”
James shook his head and sat down, grabbed a butter knife and started cutting some toast into soldiers for Ollie. “I dunno. Just worried about that oven downstairs. I’m already seeing pound signs.”
“Well, that’s why we’re getting an estimate. Don’t panic yet.”
* * *
The contractor was sizing up the cast iron oven, zipping his yellow plastic measuring tape and jotting down dimensions. James was panicking now. John, whose physique belied his profession in the building trade, was thin as a whippet even though he must have been at least fifty. He again waved his industrial-strength torch into the gaping maw of the oven. It seemed to go back forever.
“This has got to be the biggest one of these things I’ve seen,” he said, his words muffled and his upper half swallowed by the opening. He stepped backwards and leaned on the heavy hinged door. “Not in too bad a shape given its age, but I can see evidence that the flooring bricks have settled rather badly. There might even be a sinkhole under there. You’ll have to reline the whole thing.”
“But we can refurbish it, right?” asked Claire, her voice unable to conceal her anticipation.
“I don’t see why not, but first I’ll have to see the condition of the firebox and how the chimney stack is connected. This hasn’t been used for decades and God knows what could be in there blocking it up.” John looked over to James. “Do you want to keep this a wood burner or install a gas-fired heating element in here? Wood burner would be good for a pizza oven but can be very dirty.”
“She wants an oven for cakes and such,” replied James, slightly embarrassed.
John smiled. “Right… cupcakes. Well, you gotta go with gas then, I think. Very, very difficult to regulate these old wood-burners. Gas oven would definitely be the way to go for your wife here, if she’s the one who will be the baker.”
James put both hands into his trouser pockets. “OK, then. What are looking at for costs if we go ahead and do this?”
The contractor smiled and inclined his head a little. “Look, until I really get poking around in there, I can’t be exact on the cost. But I reckon, again, if you go for a gas system that I can install in the old firebox – maybe ten thousand.” He paused a second before adding, “but that’s a liberal estimate, it could be less.”
Claire’s intake of breath was audible. James wasn’t exactly surprised though. But Claire jumped in before James could make a comment. “Well, we really want to do this thing so why don’t you poke around more and give us a detailed estimate.”
James felt his jaw go slack.
John turned again to shine his torch into the oven. “I do think you’ve got some sort of breach in the walls in here, though. Caught a whiff of something musky coming from the back. Could be animals have burrowed down to the bricks.”
* * *
“You really think this is a good idea now?” James stabbed at his pasta on the plate. Ollie was stuffing penne into his mouth at a rate of knots. “With all the other demands we could have in the next few months… I mean, why now? Can’t we wait at least a year?”
Claire put her arms down and leaned over the table. “You know that’s not a great idea. If they Grade Two list the house we won’t be able to touch it.”
“Sometimes, change isn’t necessarily a good thing, Claire. The oven could be just a nice feature down there if we paint the door and turn the cellar into a lounge.”
“Are you going to deprive me of this after having looked after Ollie for the past fifteen months? I want to do this. I don’t want to have to go back full time into that bloody office.”
James shook his head slowly and stirred his fork. “Claire… I’m not trying to deny you. I’m just saying haven’t we had enough change for a while? Do we need that disruption? I mean, a baking business?” He regretted his words – or at least his choice of them – even as they left his mouth. Her eyes had now gone cold and steely. And if he wanted family peace he knew he’d better back down.
Claire looked out the kitchen windows and resumed eating. “I think the cat’s run away.”
“That can’t be,” said James. “I put milk out last night and it’s gone now. Same with his food.”
“Well, it must be some other cat. Maja says she hasn’t seen Mr Jinks in a week.”
“Mr Jinks!” said Ollie, squishing tomato pasta between his fingers.
“No sweetie,” hushed Claire, “Mr Jinks is still outside with his friends.”
James took advantage of the change of conversation. “Well, Maja is usually upstairs with Ollie when you’re out and she could be missing him when he pops in to eat before running out again.”
“I suppose. But he never did that in the old place.”
“Speaking of Maja, did she move all the crockery into the cupboards or was that you?”
“Oh, yes, I meant to ask you about that. I thought it might have been you because I didn’t ask her to do it. She wouldn’t know where I would want it to all go. Strange.”
James shrugged and tucked into his salad bowl. “Seems like she did a good job of it though. Looks tidy.”
“And did you rearrange all the books on the living room shelves?”
“Uh, no. Did she do that, too? That’s a bit beyond her remit unless… maybe she was dusting.”
“I’ll have to ask her tomorrow,” said Claire as she got up to go to the sink with her plate. She turned on the tap and started filling the basin to do the washing up. “I’ve noticed things being moved all over the house in the last week. Little things. I had Ollie’s stuffed toys up on his dresser but now they’re stacked on the floor. I mean, they’re actually arranged. She must have done that, too.”
Claire turned off the tap and turned back to James at the table. “You don’t think she has some sort of problem, do you?”
James chuckled. “No, I’m sure it’s all well intentioned. Just tell her we know where we want our things and if she has to move them to clean then just to put them back.”
The air cleared a bit, James got Ollie his yoghurt pot for dessert and spoon fed him to make sure most of it would go where it was supposed to. “I’ll get him ready for bed if you can do the washing up,” he said, pulling off the tray from the high chair.
Claire nodded. “And make sure you wash him first, James. Not like last night.”
She turned again to face him.
“Let’s go ahead and let him do the oven. I mean, at least let him give us some options for getting it running again.”
She dropped the sponge into the sink and moved over to James to embrace him and Ollie who was propped up on James’s hip, his arms around his father’s neck. “You’ll see. This is going to be very exciting. Fun for all of us. Sometimes change is a good thing. You’ll see.”
Ollie was still on James’s arm as they went up the narrow staircase, creaking all the way. The upstairs landing led off to three bedrooms, the master at the front and two others towards the rear. All the floors were carpeted and the house did have a cosy feel, James thought, particularly with all the exposed timbers and the low ceilings. But after two weeks of living there, he had also become aware of a certain heaviness in the house. As if a great unseen weight was pushing down on it. He put it down to the low height of the ceilings and the fact that their last place had been modern. Not in itself unsettling, just noticeable.
All scrubbed and clean, and with his night nappy taped up tight, James tucked the boy up into bed and then glanced over to the dresser and the stuffed animals that were stacked next to it, all gently laid out row upon row like soldiers on dress parade.
“Ollie, did Maja move your toys yesterday over there? Or was that you?”
The boy laughed and shook his head. James grinned and pushed Ollie down by his shoulders.
“Maybe it was… Postman Pat!”
The boy giggled. “No!”
“Maybe it was… Bob the Builder!”
“No, daddy! Little man!”
James sat back, smiling. “The little man? Who’s that?”
Ollie chuckled again at his father’s ignorance. “He’s the little man!”
“Is he your friend?”
Ollie nodded his head.
“OK, well, tell him he should put toys back when he’s finished, right?”
Ollie’s eyes seemed to sparkle. “He doesn’t talk.”
James kissed him on the forehead and stood. “Ok, mate, maybe I can speak to him later. Mum will be up to say goodnight.”
The next morning the cat was still nowhere to be seen but the milk was gone. Claire was now concerned that the cat was truly missing and that some stray was helping itself every evening.
“I think I’ll ask Maja to keep an eye out back for Mr Jinks today.”
James threw his coat over his arm and kissed her. “Don’t worry, he’ll turn up. If I have to I’ll go around the neighbours and have a chat. Oh, and don’t forget to have a word with Maja about what she’s tidying, ok?”
And when James returned home at seven, shattered, under the fuzzy glare of the sodium lamps in the old street, he was again thinking about the oven – and the expense. Still, he’d given his word and they’d just have to go ahead and take it as it came. Claire had texted him at lunch to say that John was coming tomorrow to begin by removing the iron plating and door. He glanced at the other cottages on the street as he made his way down towards their house. All cheek by jowl, the larger houses now salami-sliced into multiple residences, but every one of them at least three hundred years old. In spite of his dog-tiredness, he smiled to himself. It was a beautiful street, even in the bleakness of autumn. He was still several houses down from his (which lay situated at the end of the cul-de-sac) when his eyes caught something lying in the gutter.
The garish orange of the streetlamp gave the object a brownish cast and, as he bent over to examine it, he realised almost instantly it was a cat. It was horribly twisted, flattened from the middle of its back downwards, and must have rolled or crawled to where it lay, tucked against the kerbstone. He was no forensic scientist but it stank mightily and must have been dead nearly a week. How it had gone unnoticed that long he had no idea. And he knew before he knelt to examine the red leather collar that it was Mr Jinks. He swore under his breath, knowing the evening was ruined once he told Claire. Ollie, well, they could tell him that the cat just ran away.
As he had expected, Claire erupted, silently, into tears. He tried to make all the right noises to her, like that they could get another, but he’d never really liked that cat anyway. She managed to pull herself together before Ollie could see her crying.
“I’ll go get a shovel and take care of it,” James said, stroking her shoulder.
Dinner had been not unexpectedly a quiet affair and after the washing up (which James jumped up to do) Claire put Ollie to bed with a story. She came back downstairs and they exchanged a quick squeeze in the hallway as James went up to say goodnight to the boy. Ollie was jumping around on his bed until James corralled him and tucked him back in with a mild scold. He looked over to the dresser. Ollie’s teddies, rabbits, ducks and plush dogs were all back in their place.
When he came back downstairs, he joined Claire on the sofa. She was watching Sky News intently but reached out to put an arm on his thigh as he sat down. They sat together, without exchanging any words as the news reader droned.
An advert came on and James spoke up. “Did you get a chance to speak with Maja about things today. I noticed all Ollie’s toys were back again.”
Claire turned her head to him and nodded. “Why, yes, I did. I mean, I know her English is poor and all, but she seemed to say – at least I think she said – that she hadn’t moved those things.”
“Well, she is older. She must have done it and just forgotten she had. I mean, there’s no other explanation. Unless Ollie is becoming particularly dexterous – and a good climber.”
“How would you forget unpacking and stacking three cartons of crockery?”
James pursed his lips and slouched into the sofa. “Shit, I don’t know. I forget what I did yesterday and I’m half her age.”
Claire said nothing and went on staring at the television.
“Look, I know you’re upset about the cat. It’s OK. We’ll get a neutered one next time, right? And tomorrow we’ve got John starting on the oven. That will cheer us all up.” James suddenly found himself thinking about the bank balance.
The evening programming only served to tire them further and they made their way upstairs before eleven. James went to turn the light off in the kitchen, first checking the back door was locked as well as the now redundant cat flap. He looked over to the right of the sink and spotted the cat’s milk dish, still full. He was about to move to stoop down and pick it up but then mumbled under his breath and flicked the light switch off. It could all wait until morning. Once he made it into bed and pulled the duvet over them, pillow talk was slight. Claire drifted off not long before he did.
James woke. He hadn’t had a bad dream, he had just suddenly been awake. It was still dark, perhaps 2 or 3 am. He lay there, deciding whether to get up and have a pee, when he heard Ollie. And he was giggling softly as if in conspiracy. James moved his feet over the edge of the bed and pushed himself up. With the heating gone off hours ago, it was chilly, and he could feel the draught gently pulsing in the bedroom through the old walls. He walked out into the hallway, the feeble light of the plug-in child’s lamp in the wall socket spilling out low across the carpet. Ollie’s door was half ajar, and he placed his hand on it and pushed it open. Ollie was sitting up in his bed, wide awake and grinning.
James entered and glided to the bedside, his voice low. “Hi, sport. What are you doing up in the middle of the night? What’s so funny?”
The boy settled down as James pulled up the covers over him but Ollie was still smiling as if he had just heard the best joke ever. “He likes milk.”
“Who likes milk?” James whispered. Ollie pulled up his coverlet so that it covered his mouth. His eyes were large. Another giggle, almost hissed, escaped from his lips.
James gently tugged down the coverlet a little, exposing his face. “Who is it who likes milk, Ollie?”
“Oh. Has he been visiting again?”
Ollie gave an uncertain nod.
“Well, I’m sure he has to go back to his bed now, too, so I want you to quieten down and go back to sleep, ok?”
Ollie nodded again and snuggled himself under. James kissed him and left the room, leaving the door again slightly ajar. It was only when he reached the hall that he became aware of the scent that lingered there. A musty smell, not in itself unpleasant, but certainly not normal. The smell of something organic, vaguely farmlike. As he stood at the top of the stairs he realised that the smell was stronger below. Something burning? Wiring? He made his way down, the stairs groaning under the carpeting and heavy underlay. He reached the bottom and groped for the hall light switch.
The smell was definitely stronger here. And with it, that sensation of heaviness he had felt a few days ago, like some great invisible blanket suspended over him, muffling awareness. He made his way to the kitchen. The back door was shut firmly, the old-style plank door to the cellar closed but not latched. He moved to the sink, grabbed a coffee mug from the counter top and rinsed it before filling it with tap water and taking a drink. He felt a little light-headed and double checked to make sure the gas stove was off. It was. Turning to go out, he glanced down at the floor. The milk dish was empty. James suppressed a shiver, swore aloud, and left the kitchen. He flipped off the light and groped his way to the bottom stair. Claire must have been up before now to get a drink and emptied the dish. Simple.
He was not quite halfway up the staircase when he had the unmistakeable sensation that someone was behind him. He knew that he had already creeped himself out completely with the milk, but still he felt compelled to stop and look back down the stairs. He opted for the slow head turn over right shoulder. Nothing. He resumed his climb but had barely gone up another step when the feeling came on him again, this time even stronger. That sensation when someone is standing directly behind you, breath on your neck, your skin quivering in anticipation. That sixth sense of proximity that is hardly ever wrong. He could almost feel something about to touch his back.
He shot up the rest of the stairs and flew into the bedroom, shutting the door and rattling the coat hangers that hung on the hook. He climbed back into bed and pulled up the duvet. He could feel his heart hammering.
Claire moaned and shifted. “Are you alright? What time is it?”
“It’s late. I was just checking on Ollie.”
* * *
He didn’t mention the missing milk in the morning. Nor Ollie’s imaginary friend. John had arrived at 7:30, banging on the front door and it was all “go” from there. James said good-bye to Claire and Ollie as John and his workmate cheerfully pushed past in the hall making their runs to the van for tools. He took in a lungful of cold fresh air and made his way down to the bus stop. And all of the angst of the previous night dispelled like his breath condensing in the chill.
When James returned home that evening, the van was gone and Claire met him as he took his key out of the door. “Come down and have a look at what they’ve been doing!”
They went down the cellar stairs and James quickly saw that brick dust and plaster was everywhere. There was a gaping hole where the builders had removed the cast iron fascia, door and all. Utility lights were still strung up over the hole, extension leads snaking across the cellar.
“Looks like a scene from Quatermass and the Pit. What a mess.”
“Come on, it’s not that bad,” said Claire. “They needed to take the front off to get to the lining bricks inside. He was right about a hole down there too.”
James suddenly found himself filled with a strange feeling of sadness, almost guilt. Like the house had been suddenly desecrated. But it all passed in a few seconds. “Well, looks like we’ve got ourselves a real oven project now, my dear.”
Claire put an arm around his waist. “I’m still so excited!”
That night, as he lay in bed, the sensation of oppressiveness came upon him again. Claire, as usual, had drifted off quickly. Ollie was quiet, presumably long asleep, and the house itself seemed to be waiting. Eventually, after concentrating hard to clear his head, he fell asleep. And as on the previous night, he awoke with a start. He lay quiet for a minute. Although there wasn’t a sound, he knew something was not right. He got out of the bed, glanced at Claire sleeping deeply, then quickly pulled on his dressing gown and opened the door.
The light of the grinning Mickey Mouse night-lamp spilled across the upstairs landing. Ollie’s door was open fully and it had not been so before. As soon as he walked into the hall, the smell met his nose. Musty, almost sickly sweet. He entered Ollie’s room, half illuminated by the hall light, and saw a lump under the bedclothes. Pulling back the blankets, a dozen plush toys grinned lifelessly up at him, piled on top of one another.
“Ollie! Come out now!”
He heard a small cry. It came from downstairs, maybe even on the stairs. He rushed out into the hall and started to descend. And he stopped. Ollie was standing at the bottom of the stair case and something was holding his hand. The boy’s free hand was rubbing at his eyes. The thing that held his hand could only be dimly seen in the gloom. It was not much taller than Ollie, but was manlike and seemingly covered in hair. And it turned its head at James’s approach. Two milky, semi-luminous eyes blinked at him and he could see its bulbous nose and wide almost lipless mouth. And the look it gave him was one of righteous anger – as if betrayed. It then slowly turned and continued, pulling Ollie gently along.
James’s head was suddenly swimming, and now he was convinced he was dreaming. He came down the stairs, slowly, somewhat confused, as the strange smell grew around him. Now when he looked at the creature, it seemed to have grown larger, taller now than Ollie. It walked in a slight crouch, a shuffling gait that was not hurried, but James felt he could not catch up. They turned into the kitchen, which was filled by moonlight. James followed, unable to cry out to Ollie. But he somehow managed to reach out in front of him as the pair descended into the cellar, the thing first and Ollie behind, still his little hand being held by the spindly fingered creature. He pulled Ollie back towards him but his vision was swirling in and out of focus. He sat down upon the top step, the boy falling into his arms as the thing opened its hand. James pushed Ollie past him up the last two steps and saw him disappear around the corner and into the kitchen. His face had been blank, as if sleepwalking.
James twisted around, still sitting halfway down the cellar steps. He could now almost see his surroundings, even though he was sure no light was on. His terror melted into a sense of confused wonderment – and curiosity – as the unseen fey cloud swallowed him. Real or dream, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. The thing looked up at him, its balding head covered in long wisps of brown hair like its body. It bore no expression, no smile, no grimace. Its bulging, clouded eyes just beheld him. And then it raised a long, heavily sinewed arm up to him and he knew what it thought. And what it wanted.
He took its bony hand and slowly rose to his feet and carried on downwards, his ears ringing. He felt as if he was getting smaller. The thing stood with him at the hole in the brick and earthen wall. The surroundings of the cellar looked hazy, now, as if he was peering through gossamer; but a warm emerald glow seemed to emanate from the ragged mouth where the oven had been. He looked into the face of the ancient creature and nodded. Change wasn’t a good thing. Some things were never meant to change. And change came at a price.
The creature pulled itself up into the oven. And James, content with the bargain, followed.