Flash fiction: Whoosh

This is the story I wrote on Valentine’s Day and decided it just did not suit the mood.

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“It was a hay loft, sweetheart,” her mother said. “The old lady who used to live here kept hay up there to feed her cows.”

“But it’s empty now,” the child said. “And I hear things.”

“It used to be a hay loft,” her mother said patiently, “so there were lots of small animals lived in it.” She smiled encouragingly. “Dormice, you know, like in Alice in Wonderland.”

The girl shook her head. “It’s not mice. It’s a big whooshing noise. And it’s angry.”

The sound of the TV wafted through to the child’s bedroom. Audience laughter, applause. The woman shuffled her feet, and the gesture of stroking her daughter’s hair became more brusque. She looked over her shoulder at the light from the screen playing on the hallway wall, reminding her that she was missing the show. The child watched her stoically, knowing her mother had stopped listening or caring. She expected no more, just a brief smile and a kiss on the cheek.

“If the mice bother you tonight,” she said, pecking the dark gold hair that lay across her daughter’s brow, “we’ll see about getting you a kitten.”

“Promise?”

The quick smile flashed again.

“We’ll see. Now go to sleep.”

The child didn’t smile and she didn’t go to sleep. Not straight away. She tried not to think about the kitten because she didn’t believe in it. She’d been promised a cat ever since she first complained about the noises upstairs. Her mother didn’t like cats. She rolled on her side so she could see the door and the bright strip of light from the hallway. The TV laughter rolled into the room in waves of irritating jollity but she wasn’t listening. She was waiting for the whooshing to start.

The child didn’t know why there was so much anger upstairs in the house. She didn’t know what had happened to the old lady who used to live there, nor had she ever tried to understand what her parents argued about in low voices when she was in bed. What was important was the whooshing noise and why it was angry.

She must have slept because when she opened her eyes again, the strip of light had gone and the TV was silent. The countryside was full of furtive night noises, and the house answered in its own language of creaks and sighs. The child listened for the other sound, the sound that was wrong.

It started above her head. She imagined someone waving a bed sheet, flapping it to get the creases out. It was a comforting thought but not a convincing one. She sat up and felt around for her slippers.

The attic door was just opposite her bedroom door. She wasn’t supposed to open it. The stairs weren’t safe, her mother said. But she knew the step with the broken board, and she skipped over it. It was dark. The air was in movement, a whirring, vibrating movement, and it was probably filled with dust motes if there had been any light to see by. She stood on the edge of the big empty room where hay still drifted. The shutters on all the windows were tight closed except where something had pushed one open. A pane was missing in that window, and she could see the stars through the opening, clear and bright.

She listened. The air trembled. She didn’t know if she was frightened, or if she ought to be frightened. The anger was something she understood, something she shared. It wanted to be let out. The shadows moved and the slow, heavy whooshing began again, louder, rushing towards her. She held her breath and stood back from the stair. The mass of shadow flew past her, scratching her face, or was it stroking? A sensation like clawed feathers, a pungent smell of blood and animal, the noise that should not be, tumbled down the stairs.

She sat on the step and waited as the anger filled the sleeping house and dug impossible claws deep into the walls.

When the house had soaked up all the fractured sounds, and the noise that shouldn’t be had fallen silent, she skipped over the broken step and slipped back into bed. A brown feather floated onto her pillow. She held it tight in her fist as she drifted off to sleep.

 

Flash fiction: The attic

A short story written for Margo Roby’s photo prompt

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We’d visited all of the house except the attic. We’d admired the old beams, run our fingers through the soot around the fireplaces, picked at the flaking paintwork and prodded the woodwormy window frames. We smiled inwardly. Nothing serious. Cosmetic. We loved the house. The estate agent turned in the doorway, the eager light in his eyes betraying his hopes that we’d be signing without too much fuss. I too turned for one last look at the kitchen, the homely beams, the red tiles on the floor, the small wooden door in the corner, and I hesitated, the warm feeling faltering.

“The attic. We ought really to visit it, you know.”

The estate agent had opened that door briefly, pushed his overfed bulk into the narrow opening and declared.

“No, that staircase really is too rickety.” He backed out, a determined smile plastered across his face. “Next time, maybe. No electric light up there. The beams are perfectly sound. There’s a certificate in the file. Nothing to worry about from the roof either. It had a thorough revision two years ago. In the file.” He smiled again without warmth, and they’d moved on to visit the other rooms.

“I’d like to see.”

The estate agent began to bluster, which made me even more adamant. As a species they have a bad press, and I wouldn’t trust this one as far as I could throw him, which, given his girth, was not far.

Tom caught my eye. “I brought a flashlight for emergencies,” he said, producing it from his pocket like the piece of evidence that clinched the case.

The estate agent sighed and opened the door with an obvious bad grace. He led the way, grumbling about the dust, the ominous creaks, the broken handrail. At the top another door. Behind, the light was pale, thin. One dusty window let in light that I had the distinct impression came from another time. The day we had left was sunny, cheerful. The attic was full of winter.

The estate agent stomped about on the boards, his shoes leaving prints. He stomped, chuntered, broke the silence that had hung like cobwebs for how long?

“How long did you say the house has been empty?”

“Not long. The owners moved out in the spring.”

Tom flashed light into the dim corners. I rubbed a hole in the grime of the window. The garden was there, but I couldn’t see the flowers. I was certain I’d seen a clump of hydrangeas by the wall, a splash of dawn sky colour. I frowned, shivering. It was cold in the attic though outside the sun was warm. The estate agent carried on stamping his feet and slapping his hands together. It was almost as if he was trying to make as much noise as possible. Tom’s flashlight lingered on an old pram with a mouldering doll sitting inside. The pram was a relic from a bygone age. The fabric of the doll’s dress and the lining of the pram were the colour of dust, fragile, and trembling on the brink of becoming dust like the rest of the attic. I listened to the papery rustling behind the estate agent’s elephantine blunderings, the patter of voices.

“They didn’t come up here often, did they?” Tom let the light wander right to the back where the roof was lowest and the shadows deepest. A bed, a child’s bed. He started towards it. I grabbed his arm. The air was so cold. The estate agent was shuffling nervously by the stairs. Maybe he could hear them too, the voices.

“They never came up here,” I said.

Tom looked at me and I could see that he understood too. Something touched the back of my neck.

“Let’s go,” I said. “Please.”

The air moved and the rags that hung over the window fluttered. The thin light dimmed. The estate agent’s bulk disappeared surprisingly quickly, and the sound of his steps hurrying across the room came up from the kitchen.

I turned and peered one last time into the darkness of the farthest wall beneath the eaves. The shadows stirred, laboriously, and Tom pushed me down, away, and pulled the door shut behind him. The rickety stairs shook and shuddered, and the voices whispered,

Please,

Please,

Please.

Outside, the sunshine that dried the damp tears on my face beamed down on the sky blue and pink flowers of hydrangeas by the wall.