The challenge from Chuck Wendig this week is to use one of the middle lines we gave him last week to produce a 1000 word story.
I’ve chosen Jason Heitkamper’s: The rats have really taken over and, while the house feels more empty than it did ten years go, I can still see the ghosts of my sisters clinging to every shadow.
If you’re wondering what has happened to my Half A Clue story – Rebecca Douglass did a fourth part last week and has added it to a page she’s made for the story. I have been derelict in my duty and failed to produce a new part this week. So sue me.
Crossing the seventh sea I realised it was time to go home. What I’d been running from was lost in the mists of time. Old ghosts meant nothing to me.
So why am I stepping from a beat-up tramp steamer, picking my way past putrescent fishing baskets, sliding on seaweed slime, and knocking at the door of the harbour master’s office?
“Excuse me, sir. Know any boats making way for Cromer, or maybe Winterton, or even Gorleston, any time soon?”
He looks me up and down, takes his pipe from his mouth and uses a nicotine stained thumb to move the papers around on his desk. “Jus’ an’where roun’ t’Norf’ coas’, eh?”
You’d think they’d put someone with a thinner accent in this job, wouldn’t you? Fortunately, I understand it, once I switch my brain back a way.
“Aye,” is all I say, putting my hands back in my pockets and slouching against the door, like a fixture that isn’t going to leave without a ship to head to.
“An’ tug t’ Wash’ll do ye,” he spits out. The spitting punctuates the words; years of practice mean he hits the bucket straight in.
“Where do they tie up?” I’m not setting out on a wild goose chase.
He points. I observe. He nods. I leave.
I suppose you don’t expect too much in the way of service in return for not producing your papers or stuff like that. Easier for all of us that way.
I slip into the patois as I amble along the quay. “An’one fer Wash? Cromer? Gor’ston?”
On the fourth one along, a tarred fishing smack with cruddy ropes and immaculate decks, a man is leaning over the stern, carefully not watching me.
I pause. We make eye contact. He flips a thumb towards the plank and I come aboard like a regular seadog. He takes no notice of me. I’ve passed the test, not needing any assistance on the lethally narrow and slippery gangway. Two painfully thin youths climb out of the hold and start casting off. I didn’t see a signal and I get a strange feeling they were waiting for me. How? Why?
We pass the seals on the harbour bar, basking with their tails and feet up in the air, looking like some sort of baby feeders or tropical fruit, and head east. We’re going the right way, at any rate.
Two hours pass.
The captain, since he was the one leaning over the stern and is now occasionally checking up on the youth steering the boat, comes and leans on the gunnels next to me.
“We’re puttin’ into Branc’ster Staithe, then doin’ some crab fishin’ afore Cromer,” he says, gazing down at the water rushing past us.
“I’ll leave you at Brancaster, then,” I say.
At Brancaster I get a lift on a cart into Creake, and from Creake I hitch a lift to Fakenham, where I spend a night in an inn I used to know when I was a kid. Well, a kid old enough to do harvest on my own. And drink afterwards.
“You young Mick?” A smelly grandfather of thousands pokes his face into my beer.
“No,” I lie.
The grandfather harrumphs and takes his odious porter elsewhere. The ghosts are gathering around me, just watching – for now. I sleep anyway.
Dawn sees me aboard the early coach to Holt. Two hours later I’m walking through the forest. Some paths are bigger, some smaller than I remember. I’m aware I’m being followed. Some time after noon I climb over the stile and cross the yard, if you can call it that; the byres are fallen in and fireweed adorns every crack and crevice. I push open the cottage door.
The rats have really taken over and, while the house feels more empty than it did ten years ago, I can still see the ghosts of my sisters clinging to every shadow.
I wait till the scuttling subsides, then step across the threshold. I’m not alone, since the presence that has dogged me from Fakenham steps in too. The ghosts of my sisters shrink and melt into the cobwebs hanging like curtains. Always shy. Nothing changes.
“Where are you, you old bat?” There’s no reply, of course. Not now. Not yet.
I wander around, fingering things left in the dust, then take myself outside to forage in the late afternoon light. Nuts, berries, some water from a stream that doesn’t look like it’s infested with flukes. Enough to stave off the pangs.
I pull some wood off a barn and hope it’s dry enough to light. More kindling from the woods, and soon I have a healthy enough stock for a fire for the night. It has clouded over, and my weather sense suggests storm. Just what the old stagers would like; a bit more drama for our confrontation.
I’m right. The sun sets early under a thick mass broiling up from the west. The wind blows it over us, rushing streaks of purple and black tinged here and there with escaping orange and yellow. The fire struggles to get going, but I feed it and tease it and coax it into life. Not much, since it is cowed by the dampening spirits of the place. Enough, I think.
The rats grow bolder. I’m in their space now. I toss them shares in my foraging, without any expectation. They’ll hardly side with me in the fight.
The storm hits us, and the ghosts materialise in the static.
“Why?” they moan, waving their silken arms towards me. “Why did you leave us? Why have you returned?”
“I never left you.” My voice cracks in unison with the lightning. “I was taken.”
“You escaped…” The wailing wound between them like a spiral staircase of sound, whistling with the wind in the eaves.
“Yes…” but for how long, I thought. I had never really escaped. Just buried the memory.
Then it came through the door and faced me again.
(c) J M Pett 2014