For the third time in as many minutes, Susan appraised herself in the full-length mirror, noting the lack of curve and the dumpiness of a face so her. ‘Ordinary’ was a word she heard behind closed doors, when the whisperer thought she slept, or at school, when the other girls caught her eavesdropping. Hour upon hour, she practised her smile, but the gloom snuck out through her eyes.
The day had been like any other. A moon sat swollen in the night, laying a pallid blanket upon the valley beyond Susan’s bedroom window. She admired its faint touch, the delicate silhouettes it placed upon the canvas. If only her life could be that matter-of-fact, but it was not.
“Give me my sweeties,” came the brittle voice of her five-year-old brother, Paul. “Give me my sweeties back. … I’m telling on you.” His trainers shuffled in the light at the bottom of her bedroom door. “I want my sweeties, they’re mine.” The handle turned slowly and the bolt rattled as he shoved the door a few times. “I want them.”
Susan sat on her bed and grinned, taking up the bag of pear drops and popping one carefully, deliberately into her mouth.
“I haven’t got them,” she said, her words smoothed as she shifted the sweet around with her tongue. “You must’ve lost them.”
“Give me them back!” He stamped his feet outside the door.
“I haven’t got them, I said.” She hooked a little juice from the side of her mouth, released as she spoke the last word.
“Liar.” Paul said, close to tears. “I’ll tell daddy.”
“Tell him,” Susan said and crunched the sweet, “see if I care.”
The door rattled again, this time accompanied by the slap of his tiny palm. She could imagine his soft ruddy cheeks, the easily available tears trickling down from his hazel eyes.
“Go and cry somewhere else, geek."
“I’m telling.” And with that, he left.
She could hear his feet padding down the stairs, his whimper a rehearsal for a tearful entrance. Quickly she snatched up the bag of sweets and opened the window, throwing them as far as she could. They landed in the grass, beside the car.
“I haven’t got them,” she shouted, confident in that simple truth. She flopped back down on the bed and prepared for the worst. Her father was at the pub, so she would be spared his wrath, at least until he returned. However, her mother down stairs in the kitchen prepared tea, and she could be as formidable sometimes, especially when anything came between her and perfection.
Susan lay on her bed, watching the seconds hand on the Mickey Mouse alarm clock slowly turn. After two minutes passed, she wondered what happened downstairs. From experience, she knew of her brother’s persistence. It had been her downfall on many occasions, when her mother had been pushed to her limit by Paul’s ceaseless whining. Having hooked on her flip-flops and climbed into her dressing gown, she approached the bolt, slid it quietly aside and opened the door a crack to peek. Light climbed upstairs from the open door below. She listened for raised voices, for a signal of intent or a promise invested, but all was quiet … too quiet.
Her heart skipped as she descended the stairs, one cat-step after another, fingertips slipping across the embossed wallpaper on either side. Finally, she reached the bottom, framed by the doorway—a picture of innocence—looking at an oddly muted scene. The two of them stood next to the cage where they kept their Guinea pig, Fluffy, her mother bent to Paul, arm embracing him.
“What’s wrong with him?” Paul said; tears now genuine.
“He’s sleeping, darling,” mother said, ruffled his hair and then squeezed him tightly. “He’ll be alright in the morning.”
“Why isn’t he moving?” Paul nudged the cage and watched Fluffy rock in the hay.
“Let’s just leave him for now, eh?” Mother squatted down, cupped Paul’s face in her palms and eased the tears from his cheeks with her thumbs. “We don’t want to go waking him up now do we.”
“I want to hold him, mummy,” he said, still a trace of upset in his voice.
“No,” mother said, her sweet voice lyrical and compelling, “that wouldn’t be fair on Fluffy, would it. Come on, I’ll put the cover over him and we’ll have tea. When your dad gets back we’ll see what he says, okay?”
Paul nodded and knuckled away the last of his tears.
“He’s dead,” Susan said to announce her arrival.
Her mother threw Susan a scolding glance, coupled with a quick shake of the head.
“He’s dead, Paul, that’s why he’s not moving.” Susan walked into the room, her eyes locked on her mother for a moment before slipping to Paul.
“Is he, mummy?” Paul looked at Susan, whose gravity had convinced him before he had finished his question.
“Tell him the truth, mum …”
Her mother sighed, the weight of her shoulders too much to bear. “Yes … he’s passed on, darling.” She started towards Susan, who turned and fled back up the stairs, thundered her feet into the carpet and squealed behind tight lips. “Stay up there, and don’t come back down, you nasty girl.”
“It’s the truth!” Susan yelled, just before she slammed her bedroom door and bolted it. She stroked the bolt; it had always been her friend.
At a quarter to eight, Dave Lipman stumbled out of The Harvestman. His legs buckled and straightened as he tried to orientate himself for the mile and a half walk home. He staggered across the country road, shaking a fist at a car as it screamed towards him, a fierce expression caught in the headlights, the driver still on the horn even after it past by.
“Have some of this … arsehole!” he shouted, and shook an ineffectual fist.
Before he could stop his momentum, a trailing foot caught the curb and he fell into the long grass. He lay there for a while, listened to the whistling of the wind and occasionally barked curses. The anger was soon forgotten though, a limp, uneven smile returned, as he clambered back to his feet, muttering instructions to less than helpful limbs.
For a moment, he stood there, pointed in the direction he would take, and then, having heaved a lung full of fresh air, set off up the gentle incline home.
“Hello you.” He looked up at the moon, the beer making a corona of its glow as it slipped about in the night sky, just beyond his grasp. “Come here you…” He giggled inanely and then shouted: “Hold still …”
With a chorus of ‘Show me the way to go home’ he pushed on, willing more pace from his legs, and slowly but surely—with a chilled breeze creeping beneath his shirt—they did just that. Soon he’d forgotten the song and all that mattered was the thought of home and the warmth of a hot meal in his belly, the moon now not the only light he could see at the horizon.
Shallows Deep Cottage had been derelict when he had first bought it, five years earlier, but it had one redeeming feature: its isolation. It sat on the lip of a valley that swept down to a brook—with its little York-stone bridge—and then swooped up to three peaks, the perfection of green pasture at its heart, broken only by the occasional old oak tree. However, the proximity of The Harvestman sealed the deal.
At last, Dave placed his palm on the gateway to the cottage, looking up at the light in Susan’s bedroom.
“Hello you,” he shouted as he staggered up the drive.
On hearing her father’s voice, Susan stepped away from the window, her back pressed hard against the corner of the room. Drunk and with an impending grievance to resolve, she knew her father’s punishment loomed large. Dread gripped her, the regret for borrowed liberty weighing on her shoulders, as it always did. She couldn’t stop herself revelling in those moments, even though contrition inevitably followed.
“I love you … you know that.” Dave placed a hand on the bonnet of his car, slipping along it for support. “What’s this?” He bent and plucked a small white bag from the ground, then instinctively gazed back up at Susan’s bedroom. “Sweets for my sweet, sugar for my honey …”
“Dave!” His wife, Angela had stepped out through the back door, having heard his song. “Look at the state of you.” She laughed nervously.
When he finally stumbled into the kitchen, Paul held onto his mother’s leg. “Hello little’n.” His voice resonated in the aluminium of the draining board and sink. “You seem to have dropped something.”
Paul ran over, his tiny hand poised to receive the sweets. However, Dave did not give them over straight away; instead, he hid them behind his back.
“What do you say?” Dave said, bending down.
“You can do better than that.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Rubbish!” His face grew angry. “Please may I. …”
“Please may I have the sweets … daddy?”
Dave wagged his free hand. “Ah, ah, ah. …”
“Pretty please may I have the sweets, Daddy?”
“That’s my boy,” Dave said and ruffled his hair with a fat hand. He looked up at his wife Angela, who smiled. “Is Susan still in her fucking bedroom?” Angela let slip a frown. “Sorry … sorry,” Dave said, “Daddy said a naughty word.” Dave held Angela—hand grasping her nape—and twisted her head so her ear was near his mouth. “Don’t make me look stupid in front of the kids … and this house better be fucking spotless.” He shoved and let go, settled on a wooden stool by the sink, spreading his legs to stop himself toppling. The grin returned.
“Would you go upstairs for a minute, Paul,” Angela said and patted him on the bottom as he walked dutifully towards the stairs. “We’ll have tea soon.”
When Susan heard her brother padding up the stairs and his bedroom door close, she knew it would only be a matter of time before father summoned her. She wrapped her dressing gown about her tightly, double knotted the cord and yanked it for extra security. Only seconds later, she heard the words she dreaded:
“Susan!” father’s said, slurred yet emphatic. “Get down here now.”
With little point in forestalling, she braced herself and descended the stairs. When she entered the kitchen, the cover had been removed from the cage and thrown to the floor. Her father gazed at Fluffy, hands on his knees.
“Come here,” he said, not turning from the cage.
“What?” she said.
“You know what,” her mother said, rubbing Dave’s back.
Dave brushed the hand aside and rounded on Susan.
“You’ve been upsetting Paul again, haven’t you.”
“No. …” The pitiful lie left her lips like an unintended challenge.
“Don’t lie, Susan.”
Suddenly Dave let loose with the back of his right hand and caught Susan square on the cheek. She recoiled from the blow. Her hair swished across her face and hid tears that were welling in her eyes. As always, she held fast, lips stern, jaw resolute, but the sting showed in her narrowed eyes.
“I only told the truth.” Susan looked sternly at her mother.
Dave picked up the cage and shook it. The body of Fluffy bounced about inside, it’s glazed eyes unseeing, it’s limbs frozen in the position it had taken to die. After Dave slammed the cage back down onto the table, he twisted the catch and, using finger and thumb, held the guinea pig up by its back leg for inspection. Unceremoniously, he twirled the dead pet, looking at it disinterested as if examining a product, not a once living creature.
“That’s one very dead guinea pig,” he said, and then addressing Susan, “Get me a bag.”
From the cabinet below the sink, she took a plastic bag and held it out for her father, still spinning Fluffy nonchalantly. He dropped it into the proffered bag and pointed to the bin outside. Susan approached the bin, yanked off the lid, and tossed the Guinea pig inside, slamming the lid back down hard. Hurriedly, she returned to the kitchen and started towards the stairs, a smile on her lips.
“You sick little girl,” her mother shouted after her as she took the stair two steps at a time.
The last words she heard as she closed her bedroom door were those of her father:
“I’ll have words with you in the morning.”
For three long hours, Susan stood at her bedroom window. She imagined herself running through the valley, paddling through the brook and skipping over the bridge. Climbing up onto the windowsill now, she closed her eyes, willed herself wings and flew free, rose high to meet her luminous friend, staring down on the box called home, and then onward, over the three peaks and away … away. …
Earth would not give her up though. Its greedy arms wrapped heavily about her, the dream stolen and with it the fancy of freedom. The dumpy, drab and ordinary Susan clambered down from the windowsill and sat back down on her bed heavily. What she had in mind kept her alert, counting the minutes and the hours and waiting for the house to sleep. When the cooled air felt still and night fixed her room in time, she knew it was now or never.
Susan quietly slid the bolt aside and inched herself through the door, pausing to listen out for chatter in her parents bedroom. Only the sweet sound of snoring filled the upstairs hallway. She tiptoed to her brother’s room and slipped inside; double-checking the coast was clear before closing the door. Paul lay fast asleep, his arm dangling out from the bed sheets, eyes shifting behind shiny lids.
“Paul,” she whispered, shaking him gently. “Paul. …”
He awoke and sat up, stretching and yawning.
She placed her finger upon his lips. “Shhhh. …”
Half asleep, he climbed from the bed and inserted one dithering arm into the dressing gown Susan held up for him. Once snug inside, she tied it and led him to the door, again pausing and listening.
They made their way downstairs, quickening their pace once they reached the kitchen. From beneath the sink, Susan took a torch. Having tested the batteries, turned the key in the back door carefully, teeth gripped as it clicked unlocked.
“What we doing?” Paul asked, his voice croaky.
“You’ll see. …”
As soon as Paul had exited the back door, Susan closed it behind them, holding the handle down and then letting it lift slowly. When certain no one had heard, she lifted the lid from the bin and removed the plastic bag. Paul nearly cried out when he saw the dead Fluffy inside, but Susan put her free hand over his mouth.
“It’s alright,” she said softly, “I promise you.”
Susan led Paul to the front of the house and from there down into the valley.
“I want to go to bed,” Paul said, eyes fixed on the plastic bag.
“We will, we will. We’ve just got to do something first. Okay?”
Paul nodded reluctantly.
When Susan finally found the perfect spot, she fell to her knees and placed Fluffy beside her. With her hands, she dug at the soft earth, placing it into a neat heap by the ever-growing hole. Once she dug deep enough, she stood and addressed Paul.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,” she said and smiled. “You must never tell.”
“I won’t tell.”
“Cross your heart?”
“Cross my heart.” Paul drew a cross with his finger on his belly.
“We don’t really die,” she started, hoping she could find the right words. “When our bodies are no longer needed, we turn into spirits.”
“Yes … just like angels, Paul. Those spirits live forever. They play and dance and sing and do all sorts of wonderful things that we can’t do when we have a body.” She handed Paul the bag with Fluffy inside. “But first we have to plant them, so that they can grow into spirits.”
“Like a plant?”
“You are such a clever boy.”
Paul grinned and placed Fluffy into the hole. Susan immediately started filling it in, covering the bag with the soil. Paul helped, throwing tiny handfuls of dirt, until the hole was completely covered.
“Can I stay and watch Fluffy grow?”
“It takes all night,” Susan said. “We need to go back to bed.”
“And Fluffy will be in her cage tomorrow?”
“No, she wants to be free.” Susan thought for a moment. “You’ll be able to see her tomorrow when you come back from school … but she won’t look like Fluffy. Everything changes when they become spirits.”
“What will she look like?”
“A little rabbit.”
Paul thought for a moment …
“What will I look like when I don’t want my body no more?”
“You will look like a proud stag with grand antlers.”
“What about you?”
“I will be a beautiful barn owl swooping over the three peaks.”
“What will Mummy look like?”
“Mummy will be a little sheep following the herd.”
Susan looked across the valley at an old and gnarled oak tree.
“Daddy will always be Daddy.”