Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador
By the time they had finished the service, he was already hungry. He could not say so, not with everyone dabbing their eyes and saying they couldn't believe it and his mother lying there, po-faced and powdered up, looking as though she would sit up at any moment and ask him to fetch her a side of Kobe beef. The dress she had on was a frothy blue affair the bookseller's wife had deemed appropriate to be buried in and that reminded him of a cake gone wrong. The mental image had an instant and violent effect, and when he stood back up, they were eyeing him like so many crows and the rector was grabbing the mike and adding a line or two about the need to purge the soul of demons. Back to the house after that to leave wreaths on the shoe-stand and munch on sausage rolls and murmur about the son who had puked in the pulpit at his own mother's service and what more could you expect of him, he who had to go and visit a whore the same night his mother God-rest-her-soul was breathing her last in her bed. Back to the church, the men who would bury her in the yard behind and the women who would watch and say how much they had loved her, and time for him to curl up grub-style on the floor and cry out to no one that he had needs, by God, he had needs.
The town slipped back to normal the next day, and he was alone again. He was used to it in other houses, but the crookedness of this one unsettled him. Stairs everywhere, jutting out at angles it would kill you to mimic and leading only halfway to where you wanted to be. Low-hanging beams across the ceiling. Rooms stacked together like an egg crate on its side. The roof with its bird-nest-ridden slopes and defunct chimneys and weathervane, rusted partially through, refusing to do the job completely and break off and make room for the decency of empty sky. The outside walls with their built-in bulges that seemed almost organic, cancerous. The house had been the husband's, which combined with his choice in wives explained it quite well. Now it had come to the stepson, on paper at least, while he sorted himself out enough to decide upon next moves of some kind. The rooms were drafty, and the hot water worked approximately two times out of ten.
At first the knocking had been easy to ignore. It started the night after the service, some hours after he had retired, and was loud enough for him to be sure it was not a dream. He had lain awake and listened and eaten digestives, the McVitie's chocolate-coated ones he had eaten all through school and college and his brief stint at a job and his three months here waiting on his mother. He liked them best when they were soft, and he would leave opened packets out for the purpose, giving them a day to lose their crisp before biting, noiselessly, through the melted-chocolate layer into the fibrous heart he could now chew on, bread-like only sweeter, so much sweeter. The knocks were spaced out in sets of twos and threes and sounded through the ceiling from what he registered, soon enough, had been his mother's room. It had been locked the morning of the service and her things left as they were. That it might be her spirit did not trouble him, and if it were a spirit, then it was better off, on all counts, locked up where it belonged. After several minutes the knocking stopped, and after several minutes more to ascertain it had indeed stopped, he turned over and went back to sleep.
It resumed the next night at around the same time, and this time he pulled himself up in bed to listen for patterns in the knocks, counting the pauses and noting the volume changes. It felt official, detective-like. In American films the cops ate doughnuts; here, he was eating biscuits. At the end of three nights, the patterns told him nothing. It could have been Morse code. It could have been a Bantu dialect. It could have been crickets dancing the conga for all he cared. It went on, whatever it was, and the next night even he could tell it sounded more urgent.
Decency impelled him to retrieve the key and go up and look. The room appeared empty, but he could trace the knocking now to its source, which appeared to be somewhere near the ground between the bed and the dresser. Feeling about on the wall led to the discovery of a dent, and judicious pressing in its center led to the sliding back of a good six feet of wall to reveal a space from which rolled out a woman in a sweater and dirty slacks.
Her name was Mary Winters, and she had been daily help and attendant to the mother, who had decided one day it would be pleasant to keep her locked up in the bedroom.
"Kept me here for four months, she did," said Mary, sipping the tea he had felt compelled to bring her with no greater urgency or emotion than if she had been a guest staying over for the night. Had she not tried to escape? "There's no way to open the door from the inside, I can tell you that." And why had his mother done so in the first place? "I don't know, sir. She never did quite tell me that." And what did she plan to do now? She looked around slowly, her eyes sparse-lashed and bovine. "Well, sir, if you wouldn't mind awfully, I'd rather just stay on here."
She proved willing enough to look after the house, perhaps excessively so. She seemed in fact happy to climb up and down with bucket and mop and wash, wash, wash until all the rooms were done and it was time to start over. Around her neck she wore a cloth that doubled as nose rag and duster. It worked well enough, the dust clinging to the snot in globs, hanging like little breasts and making him feel sick. She was always sneezing, from dawn to dusk. "It's the air," she explained, "there's too much of it." And what that meant he could not say, but she had refused his offer of a bed and chosen to crawl back into the wall space every night. He began to feel a certain delicacy about suggesting things to her. She cooked well enough, her dishes of the plain-but-hearty persuasion, roast meat and vegetables and fisherman's pie. He could eat as he liked now, and as much, and she would stand beside him and help him to more and insist on calling him sir.
It had been necessary, of course, to verify who she was. The day after he had unearthed her, he had gone to the cafe down the road and asked for a latte and whether his mother had ever kept a maid. Yes, Mary Winters her name was, but she'd been let go about six months ago. She hadn't been from this town, had kept largely to herself. No, she hadn't stayed in touch with anyone. There had always been something a little strange about her. He came back home unsatisfied and recounted the incident to Mary. She listened without comment and retreated to make the tea. When she returned with the tray, her lips were pursed.
"If you don't mind, sir, I'd rather not have them know I'm still staying here. They might think it unseemly."
As a nominal man of leisure, he could lie back in the rocking chair and think of nothing. He would do so with digestives and salted nuts and salami and toffee bars close at hand, all of which served to impact his physique as much as if they had been gulps of air. His inability to gain weight had earned him more detractors than fans at school, where they tended to regard him as somehow sick, somehow not normal, and hence not one of them. He had tried to be normal, dosed himself with cod-liver oil and fatty meats until he fell sick and had to have his stomach pumped out, and still he had stayed thin, and then he had learned to keep his head down and eat his snacks in secret and camouflage his thinness with baggy clothes, and thus from the sick one he had become the unstylish weirdo, which was infinitely better.
But not with his mother. She had called him down three months ago saying she needed care. He had offered to set up a nurse. She had called him an ungrateful son. The next day he was kicked out of his job and he had no further reason to refuse. Every day she would summon him and ask for things to eat, things that could not possibly be combined into any sort of feasible meal, things that mattered only in that they were decadent, richly so, and cost the earth. "Get me a pound of Wagyu beef, boy, get me a wedge of Brie." He would get them for her from the shop in town and be made to watch as she ate, richly, unflaggingly. She would indicate herself as she ate, her great suet-puddingy self heaped over in the recliner and on the verge of bursting out. "I carry my weight, boy, I carry my weight. I eat well and it shows. As for you, little bag of bones that you've been since they pulled you out of me, what does it matter whether or not you eat?"
And yet to see him eat, one would think he should have been a whale. He would eat his fill at mealtimes and beyond, having learned the art of undoing the kitchen closet before he could ride a bicycle, and all through school his main meal had been in the dead of night when he could sneak down to the pantry and consume in peace. She had held that against him, and when she had found out about the other thing, she had bought him girls' dresses for Christmas and held that against him, too. And yet through all those years, she had harbored a giving spirit, one which had lately gripped her fancy enough to give the town the things it wanted—the new library wing, the second swimming pool, the community hall bearing her name—and take their lip service in return. For lip service it had been, must have been, all the times they had stopped him in the street and told him how lucky they felt to have her with them, no one could have loved her the person over her the philanthropist. He, laden with the food she had ordered and of which he would partake nothing, would smile and nod and say how lucky he felt, too.
From time to time he would take a break and talk to Mary. What had she done with herself all boxed up like that? Hadn't she gone mad? She seemed unmoved by the question. "It wasn't that bad, sir. She let me out several times a day. It wasn't like jail or anything." Her body was thin, rectangular, almost box-like itself. "She wasn't unkind, not really. She knew I needed to stretch my legs. That was one of the reasons she would send you out so often—so I could come out." And what else had his mother done apart from being not unkind? "She'd mostly just talk, sir. About herself and her life. Sometimes she'd tell me about you." Nice things, he hoped. "Not quite, sir, she seemed to think you were a bit of a disappointment." Oh? And why was that? "She said you could never really make anything of yourself, sir, that all you knew about was eating." And did his mother ever mention her own role in this not making anything of himself? "Not quite, sir, she wasn't given to speaking negatively of herself." Did it not appear to Mary that his mother had had very little that was good or true to say? "I couldn't quite say, sir, it wasn't my place to comment." On that note, why did Mary think she had been locked up? She considered the question. "If you'll excuse my frankness, sir, I think your mother was always sorely in need of an audience, and I suppose she couldn't resist the notion of having one at her disposal."
Which of course was true, as he had known the moment he read her summons to him. She had not been sick, had never been sick. She had called him down to get him to play the good son and dredge up all the growing-up years he had thought he had left behind, and popping off had never been part of the plan. In his drier moments, he reflected on how he had turned out to be the sick one, clinging on as he was to a house and a recent past he wanted nothing to do with. Was that what lack of money did to you? Mary had said nothing about wages to him, and he hadn't brought it up. He wondered offhand whether she would stay on even if he left someday. She might, if only for the sake of having the stairs to clean.
He ran into Lily at the coffee shop, and when he would think about it, he would be surprised it hadn't happened sooner. She had recognized him, he knew from the way she held her cup to her face and darted glances at him from above it. Her lips were paler today. He paid for his coffee and left the counter without looking her way again. Just as he was at the entrance, he felt a tap on his shoulder. "Walk you back home?" she said brusquely.
They walked in silence more than half the way before she spoke again.
"I didn't tell, you know."
He glanced at her. "Tell what? To whom?"
"About that night, when we..."
He began walking faster. "I didn't think there was anything to tell about in any case."
"Oh, you know what I mean," she said, jogging to keep up with him. "Given that your mum died the same night and all... I've had more than one person ask me about it, I can tell you."
He said nothing.
"Anyway," she continued, "I haven't told anyone what really happened. They all think you were with me."
"And wasn't I with you?" he said as they stopped outside the gate.
Her mouth trembled. "Well," she managed to say, "you weren't really much of anything that night, were you?" He took a step forward to question her, to reason with her, to strangle her, but she had already turned on her heel and run off, her laughter streaming back to him. He turned back to the house and saw Mary watching through the drawing-room window.
The tea was stronger than usual today. She had poured him three cups before he could stop her. Throughout it she had been on the verge of saying something, and now she did.
"You mustn't mind what these girls say, sir. Silly flirts they are. Think every man is after them, when likely as not it's the other way round."
"You seem to know all about it," he said lightly.
"I'd known her, sir, before I was locked up. A flighty girl, you could tell it on her face. And they did mention her name as the one you were with."
It was the first time he had heard the word "flighty" outside of a book or film. It amused him, even as he reflected how Mary Winters appeared to be of the youth-hating sort. Was Lily flighty? She had been friendly enough when they had matched on the dating app, talking of dogs and books and films. They had met for drinks first and a walk, and he had been having a nice time, but he supposed she had been after the other thing all along, and of course he couldn't do that, not even when he had tried.
"I admit I was surprised, sir, when I heard it was a girl you'd been meeting that night," Mary was saying.
"And why is that?"
"Well, your mother did give me to understand you were... well..."
So she had talked of that, too. What word had she used for it, he wanted to know. Fairy? Pouf? Queer? Freak? She had been fond enough of all of them while he was growing up.
"It's nothing to be embarrassed about, sir," added Mary stoutly. "I had a cousin who was much the same, ever since he was twelve. Always had a liking for the Barbies and the dress-up games..."
But he hadn't, he reminded himself as he thought about the dresses his mother would give him for Christmas, he had never liked dressing up or playing with dolls. Some of the boys he had been with had liked them, would parade in front of him wearing short frocks and high heels, and he had smiled and said how nice they were looking, but inside he would hate himself for the urge to escape that came over him at those times, and sometimes he did escape and ask a girl out and tell her he was too heartbroken to fuck her, and usually she wouldn't mind and would even be glad, but not Lily, who had worn fuchsia lips to their date and cried when he hadn't let her suck him off with them, and in the end he supposed she had earned the right to run off laughing like that; he'd have laughed at him, too.
"And it's nothing to be ashamed about, honestly not, you can't help liking what you like," Mary was saying.
He downed the last of his tea and stood up.
"I think I shall not require dinner tonight," he said before marching towards the stairs and up to his bedroom and closing the door carefully behind him.
It was a hotter night than any he could remember. He had gone through half a sleeve of biscuits already when the knocking began. He jumped, the rest of the biscuits spilling out and landing almost prettily in a half-circle on the floor. The door handle turned, and there she was in the doorway.
"If it's alright with you, sir," she let herself in and stood at the foot of his bed, her nightgown revealing the angularity of her body and limbs, "I'm not much of a woman, sir, not visibly. You could... you could pretend I wasn't one at all."
And as he sat up and pushed the cover off, there was no need to not understand, and it turned out she was right. She was in many ways the equivalent of what he liked, and if he tried hard enough, he could tell himself her breasts were not breasts at all but the pectoral muscles of a man, that the dried-up slit crossed over with scars at her apex was not the apex but the rear, the rear itself as near-flat as it appeared through her clothes. For good measure he took her from both ends. She had not been prepared for that; she had whimpered, and he had shut his ears to it and gone on. At the end of 20 minutes he had had enough and pushed her out. She tumbled to the floor on top of the blanket, a slight crunch of her weight on the fallen biscuits, her body unmoving for several seconds even though the blanket was too soft and the fall too short to have killed her. Then she opened her eyes and picked herself up and went out without looking back at him, and he pulled the blanket back up and looked sadly at the brown mush of biscuits below, and when he dropped to his knees and scooped some of it up, he could taste the dust first, grainy and umami, even as the chocolate melted further on his tongue and dribbled out in streaks, crusting on his chin as they would, indelibly, on the blanket.
He could hear her around the house the next morning when he woke up. Either she had not slept in the wall, or she had found her own way out. He looked down at his now-flaccid penis and gave it a tug. It hurt. She had been dry. Breakfast was on the table when he came down, more abundant than usual—sausage and potatoes in addition to bacon and eggs. He ate everything. It tasted like wool. Mary was nowhere to be seen. He managed his way through most of the day until evening, when the intermittent drizzle of the afternoon cranked up to a storm before he could say wait. His penis still hurt. He tried to console himself with thoughts of the last man he had been with, the month before he came down. It had been at a massage shop where they let booths out for a fee. The man had been tall, lanky, muscle-less, pale-faced except for the wart on the left cheek. In his mind he caressed the wart again, kissed it, closed his eyes, opened them again. The face had become Mary's. Sighing, he went upstairs to his mother's bedroom, stopping at the kitchen to pick up a glass of milk. His mother's sleeping tablets were still in the cupboard. The bottle featured a cap with a sliding dispenser so he could count them out into the milk—one, two, three, four, five, six. Little splashes went up with each drop. He swirled the glass around to mix it all in and raised it to his lips. There was a footfall behind him.
"I felt I had to tell you, sir."
She was even paler than usual, her bun untidy and her thin chest rising and falling.
"All these days I've kept it to myself. It was quite easy, really, not even worth talking about in a way," she said. "A pillow over the mouth, hold it down until the kicking stops. Not that she kicked, hardly. She always slept as though she were in wait for Judgement Day."
Somewhere behind them the light flickered.
"I was standing there, sir, with her still warm in the bed, and thinking what to do when I heard you come in downstairs. There wasn't any time. I went back into the wall and pulled it shut, just like every night. I heard you come in the next morning and find her, I heard them all come in and cry and talk and take her out. I knew I had to wait until they'd done with her. I couldn't expose myself to anyone, not with everything that had happened. I didn't mind waiting, I'd gone days without food or drink before. Once I knew you were alone, that's when I knocked."
"I suppose you could have me up for killing her, sir. I wouldn't deny anything. I'm not afraid of the truth. I'd say I'm sorry, sir, but I doubt you'd have done otherwise. I'd have kept it from you, too, sir. It wasn't needed for you to know. But after last night, sir, well..."
It was only now he noticed the scars on her neck and arms, the long scratch-marks in red and oxblood and brown and purple that were almost certainly self-made and definitely self-picked-apart. Too dark within to carve stories, too solid to prise wood slats out, she had turned to herself for entertainment. Was that what the scars on her vagina had been, too? The light flickered again before stabilizing, bringing the marks into loud and abrupt focus. A wave of sympathy rose up in him.
"Here," he said, handing her the glass. "It'll do you good."