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Esthers house, p.2
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       Esther's House, p.2

           Michael Carter
 
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  ~ II ~

  The remaining days of those weeks in my early years passed contentedly, but over all my playing and childish games hung the shadow of Sunday afternoon, when my mother and I (and sometimes my father if he wasn't out drinking or busy with the garden) would trudge up that familiar Wheatbottom Bank to the string of twelve bungalows at its apex, the fourth of which was occupied by our pensioned relatives.

  My mother would knock hard on the door, adorned in red flaking paint, and we would wait patiently, often for two minutes or more, while Florrie would struggle with the bolt and the keys. When eventually she broke the defences, she would pull the door open, hiding behind it to give the effect that it had co-operated of its own accord.

  But to compensate that modest but affecting tendril of apprehension, was the very first thing that you noticed about the bungalow; the heat. Immediately, as the hinges on the door came together, any visitors were assaulted by a great stagnant warmth; a rush of hot air that had been clamouring for eons to escape and had finally achieved it; a punch of pressure that quite often took my breath quite literally away.

  We proceeded inside and Florrie silently closed, locked and bolted the door behind us. As an imaginative six-year old I was always uneasy when that door was firmly closed. I saw it as the exit back to the real world, my escape route to the cool and rational air, but with all those locks and the chain in place it seemed impenetrable.

  "Nice day, isn't it?" were always Esther's first words. Whatever the condition of the weather outside, inside, it was always high-summer, the air imbued with dehydrated heat and almost aflame with the headaches and nausea which that condition brought on. From then on, after we had sat down in our usual places on the brown imitation-leather settee, the entire conversation of the hour long visit would be almost as dry as the internal climate, consisting of the same trivial matters which plagued Wednesday afternoons. For the most part -- unless spoken to in a condescending manner -- I sat quietly looking around the room, or more often out of the window. The sight of the room, the whole house, frightened me, and if anyone had asked me to enter over the threshold after dark I would have had no shame in screaming and crying my displeasure.

  The living room was the worst, I think, although that's really the only room I saw in any detail. There were a few wooden units scattered neatly around the walls, but there were far too few ornaments to decorate them, and what few there were--usually cheap porcelain dogs--were like oases where a slight piece of interest could be found in a nondescript room. Probably the most expensive thing in the whole house was a large mirror, full-length and shining, reflecting the room and its occupants for all to see. It was placed on the side wall, adjacent to the door, and although you couldn't always see it from where you were sitting, it could see you. Another thing I didn't like about that room was the large amount of swords-and-shields that were hung up on display. Not genuine weapons, obviously, just eerie replicas, the shields made of black plastic, with two small metal swords crossing at the front. These were everywhere around the house, at least two on every wall, and I remember quite distinctly how in the kitchen one of the swords was absent from its hanging holster.

  The final item worthy of note in the living room was the rocking- chair, chafed, faded and scratched, on which Esther always perched herself. My mother recognised the chair, and believed that Esther must have inherited it from her mother.

  About twenty minutes into the visit, Florrie would be given a quiet order to the kitchen to mass some tea, and Esther would sometimes offer scaring news to my mother.

  "I heard the knocking again, last night." she might say. "Florrie did too but she won't say anything." Then she would pause and my mother would try and rationalize her claims.

  "I've told you before, it'll just be kids playing football against the wall."

  "No. No, it isn't." She would nod quite forcibly. "The young-uns don't come round here anymore. They're frightened now. They've all seen the Knockers in the trees, just as it's getting dark." At this point Esther would notion to the window at the back of the room, which looked out onto a green lawn shared with the other bungalows. This was bordered with a small wooden fence, just inside of which was a long row of aspen trees with thick recalcitrant branches that clung to the fence and convoluted in its eaves. Beyond this barrier lay a fairly quiet B-road, and then the beginning of the dales, wild and unclaimed.

  The visit to Esther's that I remember most clearly was when she claimed to have had one of her regular supernatural experiences, but this time a frenzied and violent one.

  "I fell asleep in my chair," she secreted to my mother after Florrie had embarked on the tea-making, "and I had a really long dream, it was so realistic. I thought that . . . oh God, Joan, it makes me shiver. I thought that Tommy was here, in the house again. I saw him in the mirror, and I watched him strangle the dog. And then he came towards me, Joan, and he started hitting me, and scratching me, and, Joan, d'you know what, I've still got those scratches. Those things were in the loft again, knocking in the middle of the night, and they woke me up. I tell you, Joan, there was blood on my dress and when I looked at my legs there were scratches all over. It was dark, and Florrie had gone to bed, and I could hear the knocking on the roof. I was frightened so I had to shout of her to get up and help me to bed. She came eventually, and the knocking stopped, but it came back later on, when I was trying to go to sleep."

  Florrie returned then with the tray of tea and a glass of flat lemonade for me. After five minutes of relative silence, disobeyed only by occasional slurpings of liquid, Esther whispered something to my mother and she helped her up out of her chair.

  "Esther just wants to show me something in the bedroom, Michael." said my mother, looking at me with a blank face. "I'll only be two minutes. You'll be alright here with Florrie, won't you."

  I didn't think I had much choice in the matter so I nodded yes, and tried not to look at my temporary guardian's false smile. Like my mother promised they were only away two minutes, but it seemed a great deal longer as I sat and guzzled at my drink, not really wanting it, but using it as a time-waster to pass lingering seconds.

  Long, lonely, isolated seconds where I was left in the front room with Florrie and the dog, Shep, a border collie, both of them looking at me uncomfortably as if I was an unwelcome intruder in their ordered domain. Maybe I was, and if it had been at all possible I would much have preferred to wait outside, in the garden, and to take my chance with the Knockers. Anything to get away from those basilisk looks, and those crossed swords, the tumultuous ticking clocks, and the steamed-up mirror that reflected everything in a fog, like phantoms, where you couldn't see clearly what was really there. The ubiquitous piles of folded-up clothes added to the claustrophobia, too, towered up like pedestals on the remaining chairs and on the small table, gathering dust. And the heat, the heat, the drugging, stifling, heat. And the silence.

  I was overjoyed when my mother returned, and after she finished off her tea we said our goodbyes and left with the usual departure message: "See you on Wednesday."

  While walking home I asked my mother what Esther had meant by what she had said about Tommy. She told me that it had just been a strange dream, like how I dreamt about being on a disintegrating ice-floe. When I enquired as to what Esther had shown her in the bedroom, she never answered but asked me what I wanted for tea instead. I heard her talking to my father later, and she said that Esther had shown her the nasty scratches on her legs. She said they were from Tommy, her drowned husband, but my Dad insisted that the two oldies had just been fighting again. My mother could only agree that the injuries probably stemmed from the arguments and resulting violence with Florrie. Probably.

 
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