Sharing this short story I wrote a while ago, in honor of Woolf’s birthday today (January 25).
There was one present left under the tree. It had been pushed to the back, lost in all the rough and tumble of the festive period. Now that it was the only one left, it became more apparent. The paper sparkled, reflecting the tree lights, and had left a trail of glitter over the floor. It was gathering pine needles too, as the days passed by and the tree grew old. Died.
Christmas had long gone. The New Year had been brought in with champagne, the countdown, and the fireworks on the television.
The present was still there.
It was the elephant in the room, unmentioned by everyone, as if it was a blind spot, something that nobody quite really saw. Not properly.
And yet it was still there.
The decorations were pulled off the branches, stuffed back into a tatty box that had held them for several years. She was alone now. Family and friends had all left, returned to their normal lives, leaving her with her ordinary life. Time to think and remember. She didn’t like that time at all.
She unplugged the lights and folded them away. She pulled the tree out, tugged it out the stand. It was a job that she hadn’t done alone before Christmas.
Now she was alone.
She preferred it really, when the house was full of people, life and noise, when there was someone round every corner and a constant jolly atmosphere.
But they couldn’t stay forever.
She paused before bending to pull out the forgotten present from under the branches of the fallen tree.
No, not really. It was always existing there in the corners of everyone’s minds.
She picked it up, turned it over in her hands. She knew what it was – she had picked it out herself. She picked it out every year. It was always the same. ‘Mum,’ he said, ‘Mum I’d love one of those jumpers. Something to keep warm.’
Every year, she picked out a similar one.
Everyone else, swayed by her belief that he would be there this year, had taken their presents away with them. She hadn’t. She had left hers – for her poor boy.
The boy who was never going to come home now. There would be no prodigal son return.
She held the present up to her lips before squashing it down into the decoration box. She heaved the box up into her arms and stashed it at the back of the cupboard.
Until next year.
The boys were splashing in the pool. From her bedroom she could hear the screams and splash of water. She lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling. It was hot. Too hot.
She wanted to be out there with them. She wanted to be laughing and diving into the pool and to not have a care in the world.
Except… she wasn’t.
She was stuck inside.
The pain in her stomach raged on.
There was no calming it.
It was too hot for a hot water bottle – the sweat was running down her face, down her arms into her sheets. She didn’t want to move. She was stuck there, in pain, staring at the white ceiling. A fly tiptoed across. She watched it’s slow progress until it buzzed away, finding the exit it had been looking for, leaving her alone again.
So this was what adulthood was, she thought dully.
Pain and discomfort, and not being able to do things you wanted. No wonder adults always looked so miserable.
She didn’t want to grow up. She didn’t want to be an adult. She didn’t want to be a girl, not if this was what being a girl meant.
The boys outside – they didn’t care. They didn’t understand. They didn’t have to worry about this.
No wonder they called it the curse.
The summer had always been the best time of year. The best – all that freedom and escape. Swimming, playing… now she felt like she’d never have that again. She was doomed.
The house shook as a door downstairs was wrenched open and slammed again. She heard loud, heavy footsteps coming up the stairs, dashing past her room… and then out again. She can hear talking downstairs, the whirr of the blender, and then a shout upstairs.
‘Do you want a smoothie?’
She doesn’t reply.
She closes her eyes and continues to lie there, hoping that they will go away again.
She can hear them hesitating at the bottom of the stairs, before the footsteps return to the kitchen and the talking begins again. Good.
At least the splashing has stopped for now.
She hears the lazy whirr of an aeroplane passing by and wonders where it’s going. She wishes that she could be on board, that she could be going somewhere else, away from here, away from adulthood, back to childhood and lazy easy days where nothing mattered.
The splashing starts again. She rolls onto her side, staring at the wall, wishing it would all go away. She closes her eyes, and wishes herself back to an easier, better time, when adulthood was just a fiction.
The air is as still as the water. There’s that feel, that anticipation – the air is warm.
The grass is soft beneath her feet – still damp with summer’s dew, but that’s already disappearing, as quickly as the day begins. She’s content though – for the time being. The day is still asleep, it hasn’t woken up yet, and she’s glad.
This was the best part of the day. The calm before the storm. She curled her toes up, scrunching the grass between them, and took a deep breath.
There was nothing like this fresh air – this calm. This was what she lived for.
But in an instance, she was back there – in the dark, in the cold, in the wind, watching the dead boat washing up on the shore – its hull exposed for all to see. The ship had creaked and groaned. There had been screaming – plenty of screaming, and she hadn’t known where it was coming from. Some it had come from her, she was sure of that.
The sun on her face disappeared, a shadow passing over and she shuddered. She closed her eyes and it was there.
There even when she opened them again and could see the cool, blue of the still warm water in front of her. It was nothing like the wild, crashing sea of that horrendous night.
But it haunted her dreams.
She wrapped her arms around her body, trying to warm herself up again.
It didn’t work.
Somewhere in the distance, a bird twittered from the tops of the trees. A car rumbled along a distant road.
Soon, the world would be waking and her idyllic bubble would be burst.
Since that fateful, horrific night, she had barely slept a wink. These beautiful still early mornings were what she lived for these days.
She took another deep breath and tried to bring herself back to the present moment.
Here, there were no wrecks – no ships on the beach. There was no fear that here the sea would rise up above her and swallow her.
The sun, rising up over the distant hills twinkled on the water making it sparkle.
Behind her, in the house, a window opened, a door creaked open.
The day had begun – and nightmares were banished once again, until the darkness came.
The airwaves went silent and nobody seemed to notice. Not at first. After all, not everyone had a radio anymore, let alone had the machines switched on at the precise moment that everything went silent.
The silence lasted. There was just nothing – no static or fizz, just pure silence.
Later, Carrie thought that maybe she was the last person to notice. She had been rushing about all day – a million and one things to do, and while usually she had the radio blaring out, that day, with all the toing and froing, and the endless phone calls, she didn’t.
It was only when she got in her car to go home and realised that there was no sound from the radio that she began to realise something was up.
She sat in the carpark in the dark, jabbing at the buttons in an attempt to get it to work.
At least, she thought, after sitting there for ten minutes with nothing, the engine had roared into life. The radio must be faulty. It wasn’t until she was home, her husband slumped in front of the TV, the kids already asleep – thank god – that she found something was up.
‘What a day, huh?’ her husband said.
‘Yes, it has been,’ she said, although she didn’t know why he knew her day had been so difficult.
‘I thought it was just me,’ he continued.
‘Yes,’ she paused. ‘Wait – what?’ she asked, kicking her shoes off and sinking into an arm chair.
‘What about it?’
‘They’ve all gone dead.’ He nodded at the TV. ‘Off air.’ he waved his hands around to make a point. She just nodded. Fatigue was threatening to overtake, but she couldn’t deny that she was intrigued.
There was a pause as both of them listened to the news broadcaster on the TV.
‘This isn’t even today,’ he said. ‘They’ve been playing repeats all day.’
She frowned as she took this in. ‘Why play anything at all?’
‘They don’t want people to panic,’ he said. ‘What are we without our communication? It’s like the dark ages.’
‘They used to cope.’
‘But we’re not used to coping are we?’
‘No,’ she admitted. ‘No, we’re not used to it.’
He got to his feet, stretching and yawning. ‘I’m sure they’ll have fixed it by the morning. Must be a technical issue. Do you want to eat? I left you a plate in the kitchen.’
‘Thanks,’ she said, distractedly. ‘I’ll be up in a minute.’
He kissed her on the head and then headed upstairs, his footsteps slow and careful. She leaned back in the chair, not making a move to the kitchen. She wasn’t hungry. She just wanted time.
How was it possible for all the radio networks to be off air – for there not even to be live TV? It was bizarre – and unexpected. She didn’t like it. It was unsettling. Of course there were worse things, but it made her feel out of sorts and disconnected. How long would it be until they were back on air?
There was silence across the nation that night – silence like none before. Of course, recorded material still existed and many took comfort in CDs and audio books. It was an uneasy night for many.
A week later there was still silence. The curiosity was growing unsettled. Newspapers were declaring the end of the world – a chance in state. Riots and discontent were breaking out.
The newspapers were relied on for everything. And soon it became a nation who whispered behind closed doors, who scurried round to neighbours to discuss the day’s events. Everything became localised.
And nothing changed.
No word came from on high. The airwaves had fallen silent.
Carrie was still rushing about. Nothing had changed there. Her life was still as manic as ever. Except, she noticed it more now – the silence sure, she had CDs, all of that. But it wasn’t the same. Sometimes she just wanted the general patter of someone’s voice talking about current affairs or global issues, or what they had for breakfast.
She missed it.
She wasn’t the only one.
People grew restless, adjusting to a different life, a life without the radio, without the TV – waiting for the newspapers, but even they were vague and didn’t tell them much about, well, anything. People wrote in – the letters pages were full of complaints and concerns.
On the streets, nobody met one another’s eye, just in case – you didn’t know, know who anyone was or what they wanted. But slowly, after the first wave of uneasiness, everyone starts to settle and things become normal again. In fact, Carrie has got used to this state of affairs so much that when it does come back, she doesn’t know what to do.
It just comes back on no warning, and nobody talking about it. The radio DJs sound the same and everyone goes back to normal. Nobody thinks to wonder, what happened – and why. And so, like everything else, it just returns to the way that things were before. Before what? Before the radios went off air and the world changed – for just a moment.
There were some places where magic felt more tangible than anywhere else. This was one of them. Amy cast a furtive glance behind her as she scrambled down the rocks to the hidden cove. No one had followed her there. She was alone.
Her bare feet crunched against the pebbles. The moonlight glimmered on the still water. The waves broke gently on the shore. It was a perfect still night.
She moved forward so that her feet were soaked in the water and a sense of calm fell over her for the first time in days. Since her mother had gone missing – no not gone missing taken, she had been confined to the house, pacing, waiting… waiting for them to come. But tonight, unable to bear the stuffy atmosphere, she had escaped.
This was the only safe place.
If they knew where she was – and what she was doing – they would take her away, lock her up – deem her insane. Or worse. She thought of her mother and her stomach turned over again.
She didn’t do anything straight away. She just stood there, the water draping over her feet, as she listened to the sound of the waves breaking and the wind roaring around her. It took a while to adjust and get in tune with the magic again. She had quashed it, those last few days, living in fear of her life, but now… now she felt it rising up again.
The powers were waking up. She began to murmur, to talk to the water.
And it responded, as it always did.
The wind around her was growing stronger, turning in circles around her. The elements were talking back to her. She opened her arms as she summoned, welcomed in the magic.
Once, her family had been some of the most respected witches in the country – the world. Now, thanks to a new regime and harsh laws, they were one of the most feared. For no reason, other than the fact that they were witches, and magic – of all things – was hated.
But here she was, setting it free again.
Setting herself free again.
And then she heard the sound of approaching horses, and she turned from the sea, to look up – up at the cliff top.
‘She went down there,’ a familiar voice said, the wind carrying the words down. Amy froze.
She had brought them with her. Traitor – with all her jangling jewelry – bribes from the soldiers, the authorities for giving up information and betraying her own. Amy had always known that. And that smile, the smile that held so many secrets and unsaid things.
She pulled back from the water’s edge and cowered under the cliff. There was a clanking of chains and the snorting of horses. She thought of the night they had taken her mother away, tying her up in chains and carting her away. Her mother had merely smiled. She hadn’t cried or screamed. Just looked Amy in the eye and whispered ‘I love you.’
But she didn’t have to say that. Amy knew that already.
The soldiers hesitated at the edge of the cliff. Amy’s way down wasn’t apparent and they were shouting to one another, arguing about how to get down. Amy heard the impatient voice of Martha telling them to just get down and get her, before it was too late.
She closed her eyes. She could still feel her magic working around her.
It was calling to her, telling her to come out and show herself.
And so she did.
‘I am here,’ she called up to them. It was hard to see them, in the gathering gloom, but she could make out the figures, standing there, on the edge of the cliff, as if on the edge of the world. ‘You can’t touch me here. What do you want from me?’
‘Arrest her now,’ Martha screamed – Martha, the girl from her school class who she had once walked home with, shared jokes and lunch with. Now, she was nothing more than a traitor – someone who crossed the road when she saw Amy, who betrayed her like this.
The soldier nearest to her looked as if he was about to make a move, but then, he hesitated.
‘I have done nothing wrong,’ Amy called.
She could feel the wind growing around her. The waves were growing stronger, the sound building up behind her. The elements were with her. She smiled.
‘There’s no way out for her,’ she heard one of the soldiers say. ‘She’ll have to come back up sometime.’
‘There’s no path,’ one of the soldiers objected.
‘She’s a witch – she’ll have used magic to get down there,’ the other replied.
If only they knew, she thought.
She was glad that they weren’t properly equipped nor could they see the foot holds in the rock that she had been clambering down since she had been a young girl. She was relieved that none of these soldiers had mothers who had grown up by that cove and had taught them everything they needed to know about the landscape, the cliffs, and the sea. She was lucky that they were all strangers from the city and had been sent down there on this job.
The elements were with her now and she could feel the magic burning in her chest. It was painful – bearing down on her now, and she knew that she had to use it. Had to let it pour out of her.
She closed her eyes and pulled her arms up.
One of the soldiers had figured it out now. He was scrambling down the cliff edge, shouting back to his colleagues. She heard one of them say, ‘we have to get her – or it’s our lives at stake.’ But it sounded like they were speaking under water. Their voices were muffled. She shook my head, as if trying to clear her ears out. But it didn’t make any difference.
The water behind her was rising.
The soldier was moving towards me now, his lips were moving, but his voice wasn’t carried to her by the wind. The others were attempting to scramble down now too, with Martha still standing on the edge of the cliff, watching, a smirk on her face.
She stayed rooted to the spot, her arms still stretched out, as the soldier approached. She could see him more clearly now, see the hated red and black uniform that he wore. His buttons gleamed and she wondered how long he spent polishing them. She wondered if he had a sister, a mother – someone who would miss him if he went missing. She wondered if he knew that he was destroying her family, one person at a time. But he didn’t make the rules. He was only enforcing them… that didn’t make this any easier.
The magic was still struggling to get out – the pain in her chest intensifying, and she crumbled in a heap on the stones, clutching at her chest, as if trying to claw it out. The waves behind her grew larger.
‘Magic can’t save you now,’ the soldier said and spat on the pebbles next to her, as if the very word magic caused him physical pain. He crouched down beside her. ‘Magic is being stamped out one filthy creature at a time and you’re next.’
She wished that she had the energy to move, to retort. But what was it her mother had always said?
Don’t give them the satisfaction.
‘Lost your tongue?’
She looked up at him and searched his face, looking for something – some kind of humanity. The sea had soaked her and she started to shiver, no longer feeling the burning intensity in her chest. Please come back, she thought, please. Don’t desert me now. Magic was all she had. She tried to call it back, to retrieve it, but it was fading.
And then she whispered her first plea.
The man stared at her, and for a moment she wondered if he might leave her, might not take her. But instead, he grabbed her hands, pulling them roughly towards him, tying them together tightly with a length of rope he had been carrying. ‘Don’t even think about it, witch. Try and use your magic now.’ And he dragged her to her feet.
She hadn’t realized that she was crying. It was only now, as she felt them drop off her face that she realized that she had been crying for a while. The tears mixed with the salt water that soaked her as they fell to the ground.
She stumbled as he pulled her towards the cliff. Her bare feet faltered on the rough stones as they cut into her flesh. The fire was burning again in her chest. She closed her eyes, letting it take over. Save me, she thought. Save me.
And that was when the magic came to her. The waves pulled her back, away from the cliffs, and she was ripped away from the clasp of her captor. She was flying, except, she wasn’t. The sea had hold of her, and was pulling her back, back into its clutches. The soldier, knocked to his feet, got up, bewildered, and looked about for her.
The water wrapped around her, and once again, everything sounded like it was muffled. The rope that had been around her wrists fell away and she was able to lift her arms again, as the sea carried her away to safety. The cove disappeared from view and the sea was still wrapped around her. Finally, away from danger, Amy relaxed. She closed her eyes and smiled, before whispering, ‘thank you.’
He had booked a table for thirteen, 1pm. The staff at the restaurant didn’t have a name for him – just a deep voice on the end of the phone and the promise that everything would be paid for. They were busy, and so they didn’t pay much attention to the unusualness of this booking. The girl who took the booking the day before wasn’t there anyway that day.
The restaurant was busy when the group began to arrive.
A booking under the name of Smith, for 1pm.
It couldn’t have been a more diverse group of men and women who eyed each other distrustfully. None of them knew why they were there. They didn’t really have anything in common and none of them had met before.
But all the same, they ordered food and the wine flowed, so that soon the group forgot that they didn’t know why there were there. There were thirteen of them all sitting round that table, in the middle of a busy restaurant. The waitresses passed by, bringing more drinks, carrying food to other tables, and soon they too forgot to notice that the big party was still there.
The guests round the table continued drinking.
After the first course had been eaten, one of the guests excused himself to go to the toilet.
He didn’t come back.
They didn’t notice at first.
It was only when the pudding menus had come and gone that they realised one of the group was missing.
And then there was a scream from the corner of the restaurant.
‘A body, a body in the toilets.’
It was then that they noticed.
In the middle of the excitement, another of the party, who had leapt to his feet in horror collapsed onto the table.
The group exchanged horrified looks.
They had all only just met one another – but now, they were all dropping off like flies. Nobody ate pudding or ordered any coffee. The restaurant was vacated, the ambulance service called. But by the time they got there – they were too late. Another had gone down.
They couldn’t find anything wrong with any of the victims, couldn’t work out why they had all fallen dead without apparently any idea.
The diners were all held back. But, they confessed, they had never seen one another. They didn’t even know who had brought them there together. The staff at the restaurant only knew the name of the person who had booked – but there was no Mr Smith present, and anyway, the police said when they arrived, it was probably a false name. So they had nothing to go on. None of the diners could think of why they might have been called there, or what their connection was. There was no obvious link.
They all shifted uncertainly, none of them wanting to look at the dead bodies, wondering if maybe they were next. They all refused to eat or drink anything else, even when they were offered by the restaurant. They all at there in silence, being questioned by the police one by one.
No one else went down.
Well, not right away.
It was later, when the police had taken a break from their questioning, that another of the diners suddenly collapsed. And there was no explicable reason for it. The police all said that. The ambulance crew who came said the same thing. They took the bodies away for examination.
After relentless questioning, the police let the survivors go – and that was what they felt like: survivors. And they couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would be alive come morning…
There were ten of them left that evening.
By the next morning, there were only three, and none of them could work out why.
They were pulled back in for questioning, but none of them had a reason to have killed ten people they didn’t seem to know.
The police, like everyone else, were baffled. There was no reason for these apparently healthy people to have all died – and only three survived. They had all eaten the same thing. Drank from the same bottles of wine and beer. There was no rational explanation.
Mr Smith watched the chaos unfold, his hands deep in his pockets. Just a smile remained on his face and he watched a little longer, before sauntering away, leaving his mess to unfold behind him, his enemies, now lying dead and without a voice.
It is cold on the quay and I am the only person there. I pull my coat collar up around and lean against the railings. The water is rough, rocking the few boats left out there on their buoys. The water sprays me, and I wipe it away. The taste of salt lingers on my lips. I always forget, no matter how many times I return there to the coast just how potent the fresh sea air and the salt is.
The house is safe from the monster. For now anyway. The monster paces outside. I can hear the footsteps as it moves around the house, patrolling as if waiting for a chance to break in – a chance to get me.
It’s a long climb up the hill to the spot and he wonders, yet again, why they bother. It’s windy and exposed, and there’s no chance in hell that they’re going to be able to get a fire going. And yet, here they are, once again, same as they are every year, climbing up this wretched hill in the dark to celebrate something and he’s not even sure why anymore.