‘Tea?’ Heidi’s finger was poised over the button on the kettle.
‘Why don’t we go out?’ John leaned back in the chair, arms crossed. ‘We’re always here. It’s like the walls…’
‘Are watching us,’ I agreed. You could practically feel it.
It’s a medical fact that people have an instinct for feeling when there are eyes on them. I’m not mad. But he gave me that look and it made me retreat into myself,
‘Riigghht,’ he said, drawing the sound out.
‘John,’ said Heidi, warningly. Just like the educational psychologist at school. Full of secret conclusions that I wasn’t supposed to know about. I used to think that anyone could look inside my mind and know what’s in there, browse around like they were in a supermarket. But now, of course, I know that’s not true really, even if I still feel it.
‘Like the walls are closing in on us, I was going to say.’ John had an eyebrow raised.
‘That too,’ I said. I wondered if I’d said something wrong, something they’d laugh about when I wasn’t around.
Over empathising. The fight or flight instinct in overdrive. The psychologist, Miss Green, had drawn me a picture of the primal part of the brain where it lay. The lizard part of the brain, she’d said. I didn’t like that. Anyway. It’s important to hold yourself together, not to show your nerves. It’s important to keep yourself in one piece and present a good front, or you can end up feeling too exposed, a shell-less tortoise in a sandstorm.
‘Let’s go out,’ John said. He lay back in the chair and closed his eyes.
‘We’ve got everything we need here,’ said Heidi brightly. I moved my chair a little to the left. I didn’t like having my back to the wall. ‘So, Rose, how are you getting on here? Do you feel,’ a short laugh, like a hiccup, ‘like the chosen one?’
Maybe I had been chosen to find him. Maybe God, or whatever you want to call it, wanted me to find the man with the withered smile so that he could be properly put to rest. Perhaps that was the purpose of me coming here – fate hadn’t given me the break I deserved; rather, I’d been selected for a greater good.
‘Sort of,’ I said, unsure how much of my workings to reveal. They didn’t know about the body, I had to remind myself. Be careful what you say. It’s important to keep a tight rein on your thoughts and how much of them you let out.
‘Give it a rest, Heidi,’ said John, eyes still closed.
I smiled at John gratefully. Inside my head, the leathery face grimaced at me. Had it crawled through the corridors to a new vantage point? Was it watching me now, or was that someone else? If I did right by it, perhaps it would leave me alone.
Heidi took a plastic bag from her skirt pocket.
‘Forgot these were here. Mind if I pop them in the freezer? I’d hate them to decompose.’ Ten marionette bodies, obediently prone. Did death make everything meek, I wondered, or did some spirits rebel against the eternal deference?
John opened one eye then closed it again.
‘Don’t forget they’re there,’ he said. ‘We wouldn’t want to give anyone a heart attack, finding dead bodies in the freezer.’
I gave John a quick look but his face didn’t betray anything.
‘Do you think that everyone deserves a Christian burial?’ I said.
John laughed. ‘What!’ he said, one eye opening lazily.
‘Rose,’ said Heidi, ‘you really do get more and more random.’
‘I agree with Rose. Those mice do deserve a Christian burial.’
‘Stop teasing Rose, John.’
I still wondered, though. I wondered. But maybe something symbolic was more achievable than a physical funeral.
‘Brew up then, love,’ said John.
‘You get more like bloody Felix every day.’ Heidi took three mugs from the shelf and set them down next to the kettle.
‘Now,’ said John. ‘What shall we chat about?’ His eyes were still shut.
‘Tell me about your childhoods,’ I said, keen to redeem myself with a bit of normality.
‘Oh!’ said Heidi, splashing boiling water onto teabags. ‘It was idyllic wasn’t it, John? I’m sure everyone thinks that about their childhood, but ours really was wonderful. Our parents put everything into us, didn’t they? They made our lives as perfect as they could. Really fuelled our creativity. Piano lessons, art lessons. We had ponies, rabbits, everything children could want.’ She glanced at John. ‘Didn’t we?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it was pretty perfect.’ A lazy, simian grin. ‘That’s what parents are for, isn’t it?’
‘And yours, Rose?’ Heidi said. ‘You’ve never said much about it.’
‘Oh, you know. Pretty much the same.’
Not that it mattered, but it wasn’t fair. I’d not had half of what they’d had. Who decided how happiness got parcelled out? Why them and not me?
‘Rose is a closed book,’ said John. ‘She likes to keep herself a mystery.’
‘I would too,’ said Heidi, ‘if I was in her position.’
‘Yes, Heidi, what position?’
‘The chosen… oh!’
The caretaker’s face was pressed between the door and the door frame. ‘Am I interrupting?’ he said, his voice low, as if he was in a library.
‘No,’ said Heidi. ‘Not at all.’ She offered a sliver of a smile. ‘Not at all,’ she repeated.
‘Just checking the supplies,’ he said.
‘Feel free.’ Heidi flicked a yellow curl with a precise fingernail. John folded his arms. I sat up a little straighter. The window rattled as a truck passed. A siren sounded. The boiler hummed into life. I bit a fingernail and chewed at the shard. The walls here were as thin as skin. I looked to my left. I’d swear that was a hole. Could I see an eye behind it?
‘Sorry to disturb.’ He followed my eyes towards the wall. I looked away quickly.
‘No worries,’ said John.
The door closed.
‘Where were we?’ said Heidi. ‘Let’s have some tea.’
‘You know what,’ said John, ‘I think I will get some air after all.’ His hand brushed my shoulder as he passed.
‘Boys,’ said Heidi. ‘So anti-social.’ My thoughts were still resting on leathery faces and how best to appease them. ‘Biscuit?’
The hallway was dark as a forest at night, the only light a thin mist of streetlight through the glass panels in the porch. I crept forward, key in hand, feeling my way along the wall. The wallpaper was smooth, the paper’s edges a regular rhythm against my fingertips. The frame of John’s door. My fingers brushed over the painted wood. Wallpaper again. I kept my footsteps slow and soft.
I turned the key slowly in the lock and eased the door open, tiptoed in. Walls have ears.
The common room was brighter than the hallway, the bare window splashing moonlight and street light onto the chairs and coffee table. I used to like deserted rooms at night – the feeling of secrecy that they have – but in this house, empty rooms weren’t empty. They had an atmosphere you could take a bite out of. My heart swollen in my chest, my shoulders tickled by unseen eyes, I walked quietly to the freezer. Still there. I took a single stiff body out and slipped it into my pocket.
I locked the door behind me.
A fur cheek rested against the fleece of one dressing gown pocket. The other pocket was weighed down by a trowel. I thought of different cheeks, leathered ones, dragged along floorboards as clawed hands pulled a wasted body along, sour juice pooling in that long quiet mouth. The feeling of eyes on my shoulder was so strong that I felt as though I could reach up and grab the hand that might be resting there too.
I eased open the front door. I didn’t want it to slam shut so I took off a sock and wedged it between the door and frame then stepped carefully out onto the tiled path. The night was clear, just a few thumb smears of cloud over the bright stars. I crouched at the narrow flower bed behind the low wall and pushed the trowel into the hard ground in between two skinny shrubs.
The day had been warm but I needed to pull my dressing gown more tightly around me. The tiles were cold against my bare foot, hard under my knees. The soil was dry, compact and full of stones that the blade of my trowel scraped against. I tucked my hair behind my ear and bent towards the soil. I was so close that my breath warmed it.
Now I had a pile of crumbly, pale soil and a hole perhaps a foot deep. The edges were steep and crumbling, sharp with stones. It didn’t look like a peaceful resting place. I took the white body from my pocket and held it in my hand. The slim pink toes were curled as though they were waiting for another tiny, shell-pink paw to hold. The eyes were closed, the mouth partly open and worried looking. It looked as though it was having a bad dream. It shouldn’t be put straight into the soil. I pulled off my other sock.
Suddenly the feeling on my shoulder intensified. I braced my shoulders against it and looked around. The porch was dark, my sock in the doorway, a sliver of grey down the doorframe, the common room window empty. I glanced up towards the attic windows. The light level shifted just outside my sightline. Had an attic light flicked off? I glanced quickly at the windows but they were dark.
Back to my work. I slipped the body, less cold and stiff now, into my still-warm sock and placed it in the hole.
Should I say something, I thought?
I looked behind me. The hallway was still dark.
‘May your spirit rest in peace, Albert,’ I said. ‘Now you’ve been found.’ I hesitated. ‘Ashes to ashes,’ I said. ‘Dust to dust.’ That was all I could remember. It would have to do. I sprinkled a little soil gently over the sock and then filled the hole in, scratching a cross in the soil with the end of the trowel. You are dust, I thought from nowhere, and to dust you will return.
I glanced back at the attic windows – still dark – and brushed some unseen eyes off my shoulders with dirty hands.
I threw the odd sock into my kitchen bin and climbed into bed, sleeping the heavy sleep of someone who lies beneath a thin layer of earth, alone with the stars and the wormed roots of slow growing trees.