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.