"Mum's just in the lounge. Can I get you a coffee? Tea?"
"No, thank you."
"Follow me – mum? Mum, there’s a lady here to see you. She’s from Social Services. Do you remember? I told you this morning."
"Hello there, Mrs Donnelly. It’s lovely to see you again. I’m just here to see how you’re getting on with all those new facilities that were installed for you last year"
"Sorry, she’s very quiet at the moment. You remember, mum? Those nice men came in and put in that special loo seat? And the hand rail? She was ever so cross about it, mind – said she wasn’t an invalid. Moaned for days; drove us mad. Now, of course, she’s barely speaking at all…"
"How often is she talking to you at the moment?"
"Er, you’d have to ask Sandra probably. Mum’s more talkative with her – with me it’s maybe once or twice a week. Often only a word or two. Not much."
"Is she monosyllabic around your wife as well?"
"Yeah. Generally. Except when she’s talking about the past – she keeps repeating this name over and over to my wife – Damian, I think? Says it in her sleep as well. I don’t have a clue who he is, but she seems rather taken with him."
"Mrs Donnelly, do you think you could tell us who Damian is? Or why you keep saying his name?"
"Er, she’s probably not going to talk."
"Oh don’t worry. I usually get a word or two out of them by the end! Mrs Donnelly, could you tell us? Maybe in a couple of words? Is he someone from your childhood, perhaps?"
"I’ve been rather worried about her at the moment actually. She’s been crying in the night – sometimes screaming. But she won’t tell us what about. She’s silent and stubborn as anything. It’s the worst when she gets near water. She has complete hysterics. It’s a daily battle for Sandra to shower her."
"You couldn’t tell me why that is, Mrs Donnelly? Just quickly? I’m sure we’re all very curious."
"I told you, she won’t talk. She can’t remember. I’m not even sure she knows who we are anymore."
"Mrs Donnelly, do you think you could try to remember for us? If you can? Just tell us something about how you’re feeling; something simple. Can you remember?"
I remember a time when I was young and my hair came down to my shoulders. I remember the feeling of sweat trickling down my back as I sat in the baking summer sun; I remember the joy of rolling in fresh snow. I remember running and jumping and singing just because I could.
It’s funny that, when you get old, you remember things about your childhood that you haven’t thought about in many years. The further away time stretches, the more vivid it becomes: more recent memories dance away, wisps of smoke that cannot be touched, tantalizing in their wake, whereas older, long forgotten recollections are dredged up from the labyrinths of one’s mind, ready to be relived after many years in the dust. Most of the time I am taken back to my childhood, usually to the summer of the very early noughties, when I was eleven and we moved house. It is these memories which linger.
I remember the summer was a hot one, the hottest Britain had experienced in a long time, and I remember spending much of my time drenched in sweat. The day we moved in was one of these particular days, and I sat on the pavement with a skipping rope clutched in my sticky fingers, feeling very little enthusiasm to actually stand up and skip. I hated sunny days: I liked rain, watching it drizzle against window panes as I stayed warm inside. But I was not allowed in the house as the moving men were coming to and fro: I was a spot on the pavement, an annoyance, to be avoided and brushed off with the promise of skipping ropes.
It was the days before children really had phones or iPods, though those days were very nearly upon us, and I found myself wanting for some company. My parents were immersed in important adult things; my father fussed over the angle the sofa was placed, my mother was busy homing crockery in the kitchen.
The street was dull, in a bland, suburban sort of way. Our own house was a bungalow which had been built in the style of a foreign villa but, I imagined, in the bad weather would just look rather sad. The only house of interest was one which lay across the street: a smarter building on three levels, which was dark even in the glaring sun, and had a sort of gothic grandeur to it. The grass gleamed; flowers bloomed in a multi-coloured collage; and it was as though the cruel beams of the sun had been gentle on this particular garden, where our grass withered yellow in comparison. My eyes were drawn to a plastic bag which softly danced around their driveway in a breeze which, on this side of the street, had not touched me. It was so mesmerizing to watch it drift this way and that that I did not notice the boy at first, standing in the window to the right of the house. I didn’t know how long he’d been standing there but he was looking intently at me, and did not flinch when I caught his eye. He seemed kind, with dark, penetrating eyes, and at the time he seemed much older, but in my reflective old age I would place him in his early teens.
I was startled by his intensity at first, but I remembered what my mother told me about manners, and decided to wave as, after all, we should always be polite to our neighbours. This made him break out of his reverie; he jumped, as if not expecting my sudden motion, and quickly shut the curtains.
I did not see the boy again for a while after we moved in. Some neighbours came round with faux cheerful greetings (we never really spoke to most of them again, other than a brief hello on the street) and we eventually settled into a dull routine. I spent a lot of my time inside, drawing or reading, perhaps playing on the computer, and I didn’t really come out of my room and speak to my parents except at meal-times. This was no problem for either party, as we did not have much to say to each other.
I think we’d been living there about three weeks when we first heard the news. My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, and my father came in with the local paper. He could have been discussing the weather as he told us blithely that a little girl had gone missing from the town. She lived two streets away. She was seven years old.
My mother reacted nonchalantly; buttering a piece of toast and asking who the girl’s parents were, and it emerged that my father had met them in the pub only the week before. Nice sort, apparently. And that was it. They continued with their lives.
I had innumerable questions, but found myself unable to pose any of them to the blank faces of my family, who cared so little for the welfare of the missing child. But her face – plastered across the front of the local paper: blonde, blue-eyed, the perfect darling – inexplicably stayed with me all day, and I found myself obsessively googling the story in my room, reading accounts from the police, appeals from her parents, and speculations from journalists.
I’m sure she’ll come home safe and sound they all said, but I couldn’t escape the overwhelming impression that lay at the pit of my stomach. I knew that the little girl was dead. I didn’t know why, but I knew.
That night was the first night it came. And then it came for many nights after. But the first night was my most vivid memory of it: the terror I felt still stays with me. I was in bed, though not asleep, and the room was dark, though not pitch black. An orange street-lamp glowed faintly through my curtains; the blue light of my alarm clock flashed. I could see well enough.
I felt a sense of sudden dread come over me, like someone, although not my mother or my father, was standing in my room. I had heard no door open, but a floorboard creaked as someone walked across toward my bed. My breath stopped; I did not move. Someone had broken into the house. Fear consumed me; I was trapped in my sheets.
They stopped as they got to my bed, and I felt them looking over me. Slowly, I opened one eye. Then another. And then I do not know how long it was until I breathed again.
It was not a person standing over me, but rather a thing, a creature, something from a horror film that I was not allowed to watch. It was small, child-like, but it was so far removed from any sort of humanity I could not tell if it were a girl or a boy, rather an androgynous, human-less creature with black pupils and hollowed eyes like a skull. Its face was bloated, discoloured; it gazed down at me with eerie familiarity as it laid a freakish hand on my bed, as if willing me to wake properly, and it was soaking wet, like it had been in the rain for hours: water dripped from its matted hair; it squelched in its clothes. I had a moment of ludicrous panic that it might sit on the bed and make my sheets wet. My throat was dry; I was unable to move or to speak.
Yet the most terrifying thing about it was the look of pleading in its eyes. It was desperate for me to help it in some way, but I was so repulsed and frightened I did not know what to do.
‘Help me,’ it mouthed.
Perhaps seeing my panic it withdrew its hand, I closed my eyes, heard footsteps moving away, and when I opened them it was gone.
I told no one. It was the briefest of moments – perhaps only a few seconds – and I knew my parents wouldn’t believe me anyway. I’d seen things before, spirits, ghosts and other such phenomena in various places when I was a very young child, but never anything as dreadful as that. I’d always been slightly psychic, but it was a sore point with my religious mother and father. They were afraid of what I was seeing, so the easiest thing to do was to convince themselves I was making it all up, and I knew telling them about the creature I had seen in my room would be pointless.
Its eyes looked familiar. And then it clicked.
The thing I had seen was the missing girl. She had been killed - drowned, by the looks of it - and she was asking for help to find her killer. I couldn’t be certain, but I trusted my gut.
The difficulty was what to do with the information. I couldn’t go to the police with what I knew – how would they possibly believe me? – and I couldn’t tell my family. What I needed to do was find more evidence, and so I set to work. I googled the girl, found out about her history and her school, read every article I could find about her. The search in the town continued and built to a forceful frenzy: posters of her face were plastered across lamp-posts and it seemed that every day a new search was conducted. There was a poster of her in every house – even ours – with the only exception being the strange house across the street.
I only caught glimpses of the boy who lived across from us: I had never seen his parents and nobody ever seemed to go in or out. If ever I caught him looking at me through his window I would wave, and every time he would shy away into the shadows or shut his curtains. Often when I sat in the front garden in the boiling heat I would feel his eyes on me, I would shiver, but I learnt not to look up because his expression unnerved me. The wretched creature came to visit me every night. It had begun sporadically at first, perhaps once every few days, but now it was constant, always at exactly midnight. I waited in fear for its hollowed hand to press against my bedclothes; to stare into the great vacant pupils. If I tried to shut my eyes it would simply wait longer, and so I was forced to look back at it, to confront it every time and witness its plea for help. ‘I’m helping you,’ I tried to tell it, ‘You just have to wait.’
But still the repulsive thing would linger, and I had no idea whether it understood me or not.
I became feverish in my determination to find out what had happened to the little girl, to find out who had drowned her, and why.
The nearest body of water in the town was the river that ran around Flatts Wood on the outskirts, and so I spent days and days skulking the perimeter, taking notes of frequent visitors in a dire state of exhaustion because fear kept me awake all night. If my parents had bothered to seek my whereabouts they might have been concerned, but they did not, and I was left to my own devices in order to complete my detective work. Then, one day, I saw him.
The boy who lived across the street was standing over on the far side of the river, hidden amongst shadowy elm trees. I knew it was him because he stared at me, and his expression did not waver. I froze, wondering briefly if I was being stalked, but then put up my hand to wave, as I always did. Instead of retreating, as was his way, he simply looked back. We stood, mirror images of each other, separated by a body of water as our reflections glimmered in the morning sun.
Instead of waving back to me, he cast his eyes down to the river, and as I followed his gaze, I saw a black shape emerge beneath the murky water in the middle of our reflections. It was the shape of a small body. When I looked back at him he was gone, and so had the black shape. The river was as calm and peaceful as ever before. But I knew it was him that had killed her.
That day I went to the police station to say that I believed the missing girl had drowned in the river in Flatts Wood, and I believed she had been killed by the boy who lived across the street from me. I said that I did not know the boy’s name, but gave them my address, and told them he lived in the house opposite. I said I would not leave until they did something about it.
Three hours I waited. They returned with my parents in tow, approaching me like one would a wild animal. I expected them to say he had been arrested, but instead they looked at each other, scratched heads, pulled at collars.
I was told by my mortified father that there was no boy living across the street from me. The house was empty. It had been empty for years. The couple living there had had a boy who died several years ago, and they could not bear to live there anymore. My joke was not funny. I was probably disturbed, which they had thought for a while. And then they took me home.
As we drove into the driveway that night I looked across at my neighbour’s home. There were no flowers in the garden; the grass was as withered and overgrown as our own. It was tattered; a shell of its former self. Inside, I knew I would find it empty as nobody had lived there for a long, long time.
That night I googled the story of the boy who had died. His name was Damian and he had passed away when he was fourteen – accidentally drowned in the river in Flatts Wood. His body wasn’t recovered for three weeks.
I felt no surprise when I saw his picture. His face was kind; his eyes were black and probing. I knew I would recognise him. He had watched me from across the street; he had stood over my bedside and asked me to help the little girl. I knew him well. The next morning the little girl’s body was recovered from the river – the police had looked into it after all. Like Damian before her, she had drowned. A freak accident, they said. A particularly dangerous and slippery spot, particularly for children. The town burst into crazed grief; it seemed that everybody had known her, had loved her. It was a climax of sentiment and expressions of sorrow: a concoction of relief and utter despair.
I had no more visits from the drowned creature after that. I had served my purpose.
One day I went back to the river. It was no surprise to me to see them both standing there, Damian and his young companion, looking, thankfully, as they had in life, watching me from the other side of the bank.
Perhaps they even said thank you. Perhaps it is just my memory playing tricks on me.
"Did she experience any traumas in life, your mother?"
"No. Well, I don’t think so. She had a pretty peaceful life, really. Disturbed by what she thought was the odd spirit talking to her, but she’s always been batty like that."
"So nothing from childhood that could be upsetting her?"
"No. Definitely not. Anyway, she wouldn’t remember even if there was."
"Mrs Donnelly? Could you tell us if there’s anything upsetting you? We could help?"
"See, nothing. She can’t remember anything."