By Nicholas Hogg.
The house watched them like a hollow skull. Whitewashed walls, a black front door for the mouth and buckled window panes as eyes.
“You sure she’s left.” asked Sam, taking a swig of Thunderbird.
“Give us a go on that.” Lenny extracted his hands from his coat sleeves to grab the bottle. “Me mam was talking about her the other day, said she just sold all the furniture and went.”
“You better check it out first, innit.”
Lenny drank, passed back the bottle, then climbed the iron gate and jumped down to the gravel.
“It ain’t even locked, you twat.” Sam pushed it open.
“You wait here.”
Lenny took one last look at the deserted grounds, then jogged across the lawn, past a dried up fountain complete with stone cherubs and swans. He crept around the side of the house to the back door and spread his jacket over the bottom pane. He punched straight and hard, tinkling glass into a hallway. Carefully reaching through the jagged square, he unlocked the door with a loud clack and pushed it open. The glass crunched beneath his feet and he felt the wall for a light.
“Come on you fucker.”
The light came on.
He listened. Nothing but his own heartbeat. Quickly he walked to the front of the house. He unbolted the heavy oak entrance and saw his own shadow cast on the driveway.
“I told you didn’t I,” he called out. “They’ve gone.”
Sam crunched along the gravel. “I ain’t never been a burglar before.”
Lenny looked at the floorboards. “What is it with posh people not having carpets?”
“You been upstairs?”
Sam stepped inside. “Give us a tour, then.”
Lenny had no idea what was behind any of the doors. He opened up the front room and switched on the light. It was bare. They were both reflected in the window, their warped and mirrored selves.
“I don’t like it in here,” said Sam.
They walked across the hallway to the other closed door. It was unlocked and Lenny reached in for the light.
Strewn across a red patterned carpet lay pieces of screwed up newspaper and bits of polystyrene, emptied from cardboard boxes that stood open in the litter like something had hatched from them.
“What the fuck was in these?”
“Looks like a load of Jack in the boxes jumped up and escaped,” said Sam.
“They’re hiding for us upstairs, with knives.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Sam drained the bottle of Thunderbird and walked over to a box and reached in. “It’s a lucky dip.” She felt around, but only came up with a receipt. “QVC.”
“That’s the shopping channel.”
“No way, I bet she maxed his credit card or something.”
Sam flung handfuls of packing foam at Lenny. He picked up a box and poured it over her, and they fought in a plastic blizzard till the red carpet turned white.
“Shit,” said Lenny, speckled with polystyrene. “Lets find some more drink.”
Sam followed Lenny through the hallway into a large fitted kitchen, and together they opened the cupboards.
“She’s a tight old dear with the booze.” Sam stared at the barren shelves.
“Unless you want dog food?” Lenny had found a crate of Pedigree Chum under the sink. “I wonder which of ’em got that Alsation?”
“He was always walking it down the park.”
“Not no more.”
“Well she’s cleared out. Definite. My mam says she used to come in the bakery buying loads of cakes and stuff even though she got well skinny.”
“Probably stress and that cause he ran off with some little slag. Anyway, come one.” Sam led him back out to the hallway. The stairs rose into blackness. “Lets see what’s up there.”
“You’re scared, ain’t you?”
“Am I bollocks.”
From the brightness of the hallway they climbed the darkened staircase, carefully, as if it was fragile and could break with a heavy step. At the top Lenny found the light switch, illuminating an amateur watercolour of the house hung on the wall, brush strokes of the garden in bright and floral pastels at the height of summer.
“I wouldn’t have taken that, neither,” sneered Sam. “Hardly some happy ever after picture when your husband plays away.”
They searched the empty rooms as though prospective buyers. Lenny opened each door nervously, in case they might disturb someone.
“Ain’t there a funny smell up here?”
“Just mould and stuff, innit.”
At the front they found the master bedroom, high ceilings and white coving like icing.
“Fucking ‘ell,” said Sam. “We’re in a wedding cake.”
Along one wall stood a dark wood wardrobe. The centre of the room was dominated by a king size brass bed, the mattress stripped of sheets. Sam walked over to the bed then quickly turned back to the wardrobe. “Lets see what’s in here, then.”
“Probably just monsters.”
“Don’t say that, you’ll scare me.” She grabbed the handle. “No I don’t want to, you do it. In a case a dead body falls out.”
“Scaredy cat.” Lenny pulled it slowly at first, then suddenly yanked it open.
“It’s just hats and coats,” he laughed. “Look.”
“Oh my god, you shit me right up.”
Stale and musty clothes hung on the rail.
“What she leave all these for?”
The outfits were emptied, but still left the shape of another in the cuts and droops personalised by the ghost of ownership. Seventies jackets, fur coats, shoes and boots. A pile of feathered hats on the floor like a ransacked nest.
“Wow,” said Sam. “She must’ve been minted.”
“She will be after the divorce, he’s loaded ain’t he.”
Sam took out a matching sky blue suit. “Dressing up time.” She slipped on the jacket and put on a hat, a limp clutch of feathers hung down one side.
“You look like the Queen mum.”
Sam twirled before the mirror. “I fucking do, don’t I. No wonder he ditched her.”
They looked at each other. Then Lenny reached for her, and the hat fell off like a dead bird and they kissed hungrily and hard, smacking lips. Lenny opened his eyes to check hers were closed. He put his hand inside the jacket to feel her breasts and she pulled away.
“It’s a bit creepy, doing it here.” Sam looked at the dusty mattress. “Wonder if her old man shagged his missus on there?”
They both studied the bed. Lenny hooked his arm around Sam’s waist. “Go on,” he said.
“Leave off.” She pushed his hand away and went onto the landing. “Eugh,” she moaned. “There’s definitely a smell. It’s disgusting.”
“We been in all the rooms?”
“What about those?” Sam pointed to two closed doors at the end of the landing. “Go on, Lenny.”
“You do it.”
“No I ain’t.” Lenny walked to the first door and thrust it open. “Bathroom.”
“I’m well scared,” said Sam, faking her sarcasm, peering into the sunken tub afraid of what she might find there.
“Oh, shit!” shouted Lenny, catching his reflection.
“What? What is it?”
“No, no. Come and have a look.” He beckoned her to the mirror. “That ain’t blood, is it?”
“Oh my fucking god,” shouted Sam, seeing the red, handwritten words.
Lenny slowly read, “Now you know the death of love.”
“What they mean by that?”
“She must have wrote it for him to find.”
“I’m going,” Sam pulled Lenny from the bathroom. “I wanna go, come on, let’s go.”
“We got one last door.”
“Fuck that,” snapped Sam.
Lenny shrugged off her grip.
He opened the door.
The smell rushed at them like an escaping phantom. A sickly warmth on the cold landing. Sam screamed. Lenny cried a sound his body had never made before, and they fell over each other running down the stairs and out of the house. They ran back across the lawn, back past the dried up fountain and the stone cherubs and out the gate, breathless along the lanes and all the way into town. They ran until their lungs burned. But no matter how fast or far they ran the image chased them.
All they could see was the Alsation hanging from the light fitting. Strung up by its lead in the manner of a lynched man.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Hogg was the inaugural winner of the New Writing Ventures Prize for fiction. In 2008 Canongate published his debut novel, Show Me the Sky. He has also had work broadcast by BBC Radio 3 and 4, and was twice short-listed for the Eric Gregory Award for young poets. Last month his story, ‘Gimme Danger’, was included in the Johnny Marr fronted anthology, Punk Fiction.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 21st, 2009.