The kitchen may have been full of orange light and cosy against the chill rain beating the window panes outside but it still reeked of coal dust and despair. Dora peered through the reflection of flames dancing in her half moon glasses and saw faces, twisting half-formed in the hearth, writhing in the open fire. Not a hospitable place for the grieving. And Jim made tea for them both, slopping a slug of whiskey into his own mug with his back turned to the kitchen table. He set the mugs down on opposite sides of the chess board, match half-played and wiped up the spills with a tea-towel printed on one side with a map of historical sites in Cornwall.
“Thank you, Jimmy. Are you sure you won’t have some shortbread?” When she peered over her spectacles like that, her eyebrows shot up, making every utterance look like a question. Jim smiled distractedly and shook his head, taking a sip of tea. Dora sighed and turned her attention to the chessboard.
“Knight to bishop two.”
That made Jim twitch, visibly. Dora retrieved the black bishop between thumb and finger. Jim took another sip of tea, tilted his head on one side and then nudged a pawn with the tip of his middle finger. He manoeuvred it into place in front of the white king. Dora pressed her lips together.
“Never underestimate the little fellow,” said Jim softly, “check… mate.” Picking up the black pawn, Jim mimed it kicking the king, at around shin height. Dora clicked her tongue against her teeth and slid the shortbread tin across the table with slightly more force than necessary.
“You really should eat something, you know. I understand how you must be feeling, but there’s no sense in starving yourself, lad.”
Jim smiled, gently. “Never mind, Aunty Dora, I’m sure you’ll win the next game.”
The next time she visited, Dora didn’t bother with the shortbread. She considered taking a bottle of gin, even went as far as buying one, wrapped in a twist of brown waxed paper, but decided that it was far too encouraging of a damaging habit.
“We all miss her, Jim. It’s hard to believe that she’s gone.”
“Gone,” repeated Jim absently. He seemed to remember something and shook his head slightly. “Gone, maybe, for now, but not dead, no…” His voice dropped to a barely audible whisper, “Just lost.”
Dora looked around the kitchen with an air of vague, discomfited embarrassment. She took in the bread-bin standing open and bare, the ranks of jars on the shelves, empty and covered in dust.
“Have you eaten anything today?”
“Will you stop badgering me about my diet. I’m perfectly fine. I’m eating the same amount as I always do.”
Dora sniffed disapprovingly, as if that was the entire problem.
“Well. You’re no good to us ill.” Behind the reproach, her voice was anxious. The hard lines of her face blurred when she saw the depth of hollow in Jim’s eyes these days. When Jim smiled, the strain showed. He said,
“I’m well aware of that, and you’re well aware that it’s family keeps me going. So, please – I know that you mean well, Aunty Dora, I really do. But how can you understand? Have you ever..?”
“Of course, you’re absolutely right,” Dora cut him off, “I suppose I don’t understand what you’re going through. Just, Jim…”
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
The next time Dora let herself into the house and tapped on the kitchen door, she found Jim dressed in outdoor clothes, winding a dark grey scarf around his neck. Neat and clean as always, but his herringbone suit trousers shrunk a shade too short in the leg, shiny cracks in the leather of his belt charting it’s progress inward as the weight melted away. Jim fixed her with a shuttered smile.
“Aunty Dora, hello! I’m sorry, but you’ve caught me on the hop. I’m going out.”
Dora couldn’t help notice that when he smiled so widely, Jim’s canine teeth were unusually prominent as if even his gums had shrunk; it lent his appearance an unnerving aspect. She watched as he reached up to the mantel over the huge fireplace and lifted the lid of a square, black porcelain box, retrieving the backdoor key from inside. He turned back to look at her quizzically. Pointedly. Dora patted the immaculate knot of hair at the nape of her neck, checking for non-existent stray strands.
“I’ll ah – leave you to get on with it, then. I’ll see you on Sunday.”
The Bull public house was at the far end of the village. When it rained the red first-prize rosette on the neck of the pub sign’s painted bull became a ragged wound running fresh blood.
Inside, Jim sat as far as possible from the bar, nursing a hipflask and constantly glancing towards the door. Presently, the door creaked open and a man walked in, his soaked coat starting to steam in the heat of the open fire. He limped to the bar, pushed back his hood to reveal a care-worn face and a white head of hair. He ordered - something Jim was too far away to catch, but still noted the dubious look on the man’s face as he eyed the smudged glass that was handed to him. The man seemed to come to a decision, knocking back the drink and pushing the empty tumbler and a handful of coins back across the bar. Not until his glass was refilled did he turn to look around the room. Jim, catching his eye, made an uncertain little gesture with one hand, half-considering just slipping away home, bleak and alone and forgetting all that he’d been told. But, no: the stranger nodded and made his way over, one booted foot dragging slightly on the stone-flagged floor.
The actual artefact was reminiscent of something that Jim might have wrinkled his nose at upon seeing it mounted inside a glass bell-jar in a museum. The man proffered it to him and Jim hesitated before taking it. A foul, desiccated little thing: he turned it over in his hands and felt the improbable thrill of powerful, old magic; the warning prickle of buried evil. He shook his head.
“I’ve heard so many stories. This is it?”
The man nodded.
“Aye. The very same.” He sighed, moved his empty glass in distracted circles on the pitted copper table top. Jim offered his flask and got an odd look in return.
“A top-up, then?” Jim asked and the old man paused and then nodded suspiciously and held the dirty bar glass out at arms’ length. “Is it..?” Is it real? The question seemed ridiculous coming from someone who had come so far to find the thing, but again the old man nodded, seeming to understand Jim’s meaning and the emptiness in his expression somehow left Jim with no doubts. Jim continued, painfully casual. “So, it can… find things, can it? Find that which is lost?” The man’s blue eyes were bright, almost tearful.
“That it can, son. If that’s what you really desire, that it can.”
Jim nodded then, and delved into the pocket of his jacket for the bank-roll of notes that had fallen through the hole in the lining. When he drew it out, the old man stayed him with a hand on his arm.
“No need for that. No need to make the luck any worse.”
“I beg your pardon?” But the man was already standing, pulling up his hood and heading, ungainly, to the door. Jim looked from the thing in his hand to the departing man and back again.
“Wait! What’s your name?”
The man paused with his hand on the door handle and looked back.
“White. Herbert White. Senior.”
“Ah, you have a son, from round here? Perhaps I know..?” Jim’s question trailed off at the man’s grimace, a show of physical pain and then he was gone again into the pelting rain; into the dark beyond the door.
Jim arrived home at just past ten, unwound the scarf from his neck and draped it over the back of a ladder-back kitchen chair. Shook the rain from his hair and hung the black iron kettle over the fire to make tea. He was cold and all the whiskey he’d drunk had started up a dull, coruscating ache between his eyes. He sat at the table, waiting for the water to boil and looking at it.
The Monkey’s Paw.
It lay in his palm, light and curled as a dry leaf: innocuous, if unpleasant. Feeling slightly self-conscious, even though he was alone, Jim decided there was no time like the present.
“I wish… I wish for Lydia back again.”
His voice sounded odd to him in the empty kitchen, silent but for the crackle of the fire, the tick of the wall clock. Nothing, except for the unnerving sensation that the thing had actually moved, squirmed in his hand. Jim shifted it a little in his palm and then let out a startled yelp as it spasmed into life like a large spider and scrambled erratically up his sleeve. Jim shook his arm frantically, heard it drop to the floor with a quiet, sinister ‘pat’. It lay there, under the table, until Jim worked up the courage to nudge it with the scuffed toe of his boot. Still. He gathered it up in the Cornwall tea-towel that he’d bought one holiday as a joke gift for Lydia who never did the washing up.
Behind him on the hearth, the kettle started to scream.
Jim sat at the table, sipping tea until the fire had nearly died in the grate and the amber embers left deep shadows draped in the corners of the room. When he first heard the noise, he almost dismissed it as the clamour of the storm outside, the scratch and tap of twigs against the high, diamond-paned windows. When it came again, there was no mistaking the dragging footsteps and for a moment he wondered if Mister White hadn’t changed his mind and come to find him and reclaim his talisman. Then came the knocking. Jim jumped at the first strike, slopping cold tea from his barely-touched third mug onto the table. Then a second blow; hollow, ominous, rattling the chain and bolt on the door.
Jim felt a strange sensation: part terror, part excitement as if icy water were slowly trickling into his stomach. With legs like lead he pushed back his chair with an outraged scrape on the tiles and went to open the door.
The back door: of course, Lydia always used the back door. Jim’s hands shook as he raised the latch. He tugged the door open, squinting against the influx of rain.
The figure in the doorway swayed unsteadily in the merciless wind but didn’t fall into Jim’s arms as Jim had imagined every night since he’d had the idea. A shiver shook him by the scruff of the neck. Of course, it was freezing out there. What was the delay?
“Lydia?” Said Jim uncertainly, horrified by the trepidation in his own voice. The girl in the shadows didn’t make a move forward, didn’t speak; answered only in a solemn, slow nod. Jim felt a flush like fever overrun him.
“Lydia, love, oh, thank god, Lyds! Come in, why are you waiting? Come in, come home.”
Invited, the woman crossed the threshold.
In the dying light of the fire, of course it was her. Dazed and ruined-looking, whipped by the weather, but still – Jim’s Lydia, home safe. Jim didn’t feel himself shaking, didn’t notice the tears running down his own face as he reached up to brush the matted hair from her eyes, wrapped arms around her and pulled her close, soaked through, wringing wet and dead cold as a drowned thing.
“Sweet Jesus, Lyds, you’re freezing.” Jim picked up a limp hand, held it, icy cold between his own; held her at arm’s length for a better look. Bruises like bracelets around her wrists and ankles, her feet bare and caked with mud. Her coat shredded to ribbons, a frosting of soft, white mould in its folds but her bare arms lithe, still, and pale as bone. Jim felt a lump rise in his throat as he led her over to the fireplace, sat her down on the hearthrug and stoked the fire back to roaring life.
“You’re soaking. Here, take this.” Jim slipped out of his own jacket and when Lydia made no move to take it, crept on his knees to drape the jacket over her shoulders. The reflection of the firelight turned Lydia’s white skin golden and never mind the long, livid scratches across her neck and face, to Jim, she had never looked so perfect.
They slept under a pile of quilts to chase away that damn cold, contoured together like spoons. Jim buried his face in the damp, inky tangle of Lydia’s hair, dropped sleepy kisses on the thin skin between her shoulder blades. In his arms Lydia lay unsleeping, her glassy eyes empty and wide, staring uncomprehending into the darkness.
Outside, the storm continued to lament.
At the other end of the village, Jim’s mother lost a game of chess to her sister Dora.
In a drawer in the kitchen something wrapped in a tea-towel twitched as if dreaming.
And in the master bedroom of The Rowans, Ivybridge, Jim Lacey slept soundly in the arms of the dead.
Contains reference to "The Monkey's Paw" by WW Jacobs (1902)
© 2011, Die Booth