When the creaking began, and the floors began to tremble, our first thought was “earthquake”, but when the whispers began, we knew we were dealing with something more than a seismic shift.
We always thought of the house as a haven. Four strong walls to keep out all the monsters of the world; a roof to shelter us from the rain and the eagles that prey on the livers of small boys; tall windows so you could see the evil coming; shuttered and bolted to keep out the cold and the terrors that haunt us all in the middle of the night.
I could not make out the words. “Take time” or, maybe “Take Tim”. Then I heard it clear: “Take them, take them, take them.” And I knew that we were the “them” that were to be taken.
The “them” in question being mother: on the outside strong as unconditional love, on the inside soft as wet kisses; my brother Ken: seven years, the baby of the family; my sister Sam: short for Samantha, only five years of age, but older than Methuselah’s elder brother; and me, Tony: 15, and because my father was “away on business”, the assumed head of the family.
Of course, this was only assumed by me.
I was the only one of the children who knew that father was never coming home.
I heard the ringing of the phone in the middle of the night. I saw the look on mother’s face over breakfast. I overheard the phone call to Aunt Miriam. I felt the tears on the pillow. Some of them were mine.
“Take them! Take them!” The voices now sounding more menacing, grew louder and louder, until we were forced to cover our ears, fearing that our eardrums would burst.
Without hesitation, mother led us up the stairs to the bathroom: the only room in the house with a lock, apart from the cellar, and that dark and spider-infested cavern was never the friendliest of places, even when monsters were sleeping.
How mother thought a simple sliding lock with two small screws would keep out all the evil in the world, God only knew, and God was saying nothing on the subject. He was as far away from this world as I had ever imagined him to be. I began to have doubts that He even existed at all or if He did exist, the full extent of His power. This was the moment He lost his capital “H”. Suddenly it seemed all bluff. God was just a poker player. All would be well until he was forced to show his hand. Then you were on your own. Having to face demons. Without a god. Without a father.
It took just five seconds for the force to tear away the bolt and send the door crashing into the bathroom. We were all huddled in the shower with the curtain drawn across. Investing our protection from the forces of evil in a flimsy sheet of plastic decorated with brightly coloured cartoon fish.
Something was in the bathroom with us, I could feel its presence but not see it, as my eyes were shut tight. It moved closer. Its breath, sulphuric and hot. Its breathing: gasping, like the final desperate breaths of a dying man, and then mother turned on the shower, drenching us all in cold water.
Was it the water that confused our enemy? The terror changed, transforming itself into a fire filling the bathroom with licking flames and smoke, within minutes, the water cooled its hot tongues, extinguishing them with a hiss.
Huddled in the shower tray, wet and bespeckled with ash, we clutched each other.
The breathing of the house began again: “Take them, take them.”
Mother led us quickly out of the smoke and up the next flight of stairs. Like the chased one in a B movie who climbs higher and higher to escape, hoping for a golden rope ladder hanging from the sky, which was never there.
But there was the loft ladder and pulling it down mother led us up through the trapdoor into the dust and the cobwebs. She switched on the light, revealing those familiar things of yesterday: the old rocking horse with the hideous smile that I had always been too scared to ride; the tortured violin lying on its back, its strings grown thick with dust, that father had failed to teach me, would now never teach me; the winter clothes cosying up to the snow boots, dreaming of winter, and the old brown suitcase father always took with him when he was away on business.
Mother bolted the trapdoor and I helped her to lift the old Singer sewing machine to place upon it. But the evil did not need this point of access, it seeped through the floorboards, filling the room with a cloud of yellow smoke, slowly transforming itself into a floating horned beast.
What was it that made mother take her next action? Was it that she felt at home in the attic with these familiar objects? Holding out her open palm she began to gently stroke the smoke, as if stroking an invisible pet: our lost cat Freckles perhaps, or our long-gone red setter Lenin, now running six feet down in the back garden. As she stroked, I fancied I could see the mist of perspiration lifting from the beast’s skin, as there in front of us, a monster with fluorescent amber eyes rolled over onto its back, stretched out its spidery long limbs, sharp talons and began to … purr? Maybe not quite, but as close as any hellhound could get to sounding like a tabby having its tummy rubbed.
I began to doubt the simple order of cause and effect.
“Take them!” The voices screamed, this time more insistent.
Before our wide eyes, the purring beast began to dissolve. Taking its colour from the yellow pus of its eyes it filled the room, a mustard gas, choking all that breathed it.
Before the gas overcame us, mother opened the dormer window and led us, wet and gasping, onto the roof. The black sky was overfull of stars all shouldering each other for space. Growing in number they moved closer, ever closer, until following mother’s lead, we stumbled our way across from the roof onto one star and then on to another and another, crossing them like stepping stones in a river, up and up and there … Could it be? Oh, you of such doubt, such cynicism, now eat your words, for there, before us, swaying in the warm breeze of the night sky: a golden rope ladder leading up to the heavens above us.
“And now,” said mother, putting aside the book and climbing into the bed beside us, “it is time for us all to get some sleep.”
There we huddled, the four of us, mother, and children, holding on to each other tightly, for fear that we would slip through each other´s fingers, breathing sighs of relief, for the nightmare that had threatened to extinguish us all was over.
In mother´s story the storm has passed and the beasts have been evaded, but in the morning-story, in my story, woven into her own like a double helix, father will still not be here.
I can feel the sobs of mother vibrating through the bed, crying herself to sleep.
Later, at three in the morning, in melancholy honour of that fatal phone call, she will awake with a cry that will be forever trapped in her heart. She will begin pacing around the house as if searching for something lost.
With the covers over my head, I try to sleep but the acid dampness of tears keeps me awake.
Then I hear a sound. A gentle tap, tap, tap upon the window.
It is the sound of the golden rope ladder reminding me that everything is possible.
I hold my father’s hand all through the night.
The effect will change the cause.
When I awake in the morning my father will not be here, he will never be here again, but from this day forth he will never let go of my hand.