On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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It began soon after my husband died. He had been a cellist, playing in the national orchestra, and I kept his instruments in their cases, propped in the corner of the bedroom we’d shared for twenty-four years.
Most of the orchestra was at the funeral, dressed not so differently from a performance, and indeed their next recital had been dedicated to my husband’s memory. It meant a lot to me. The conductor himself came by a week or so after the funeral to return a set of my husband’s annotated score sheets, since he thought they might have sentimental value to me. He was right. I put them with the three cellos in the bedroom.
Not long after that I was on my way home from buying some groceries, and I saw a charity shop’s window display. I’d started walking to and from the supermarket three times a week instead of driving and doing one big shop at the weekend. It gave me something to do, and I was no longer in any hurry to get back home each day. In the window of the charity shop was a violin that had seen better days, but had also obviously seen a great deal of love. I thought it would go well with the cellos, even though my husband had never owned a violin. I bought it and I took it home.
That day was nine years ago.
Our house — or mine, I suppose — has three storeys, and a large basement. Of all the space, perhaps five percent is habitable now. Everywhere else, there are only my Things. I can hear the capital-T in my mind. Things. On every floor, stacked as high as I can reach, in every room and hallway. In the baths and showers. In the pantry and the kitchen and the bedrooms. In my own bedroom, and even on my husband’s half of the bed.
The cellos are there somewhere, buried behind metres of solid stacks of Things, and beneath yet more Things, right up to the top corner of the room. I haven’t seen them in more than eight of those nine years.
There are narrow pathways through the house that I can use, with some difficulty, to move around. I have to go sideways mostly. I call them my goat paths. I don’t enjoy living like this, but it’s necessary when you have so many Things, and when you add even more Things every week, or every day. I buy Things online, and in shops, and sometimes I go out for a walk and I just find Things lying in front of someone’s house or beside a bin, and I quite often take them. I tell myself that I’ll clean them up and find a use for them, or sell them and make a nice little profit. I never do any of that, though.
It’s a mental illness, I know. I tell myself that I’m a collector, but that’s not really true. Collectors have a display cabinet with a few dozen novelty mugs behind glass doors, or some shelves full of vintage cameras, or a spare bedroom with dolls lined up around the perimeter. Collectors can walk through their homes without having to use narrow routes between stacks, and risking being killed if a pile of Things tips over. Collectors can invite people over without shame, and without fear of being carted off to an institution. I’m not a collector. They use a different word for people like me. I’m a hoarder.
There are rooms I can’t walk into. I have to start climbing from the doorway, up and onto the elevated surface of the Things. I often wonder if I’ll manage to get back down and out again, or whether one of the piles will collapse under me, like quicksand. I wouldn’t be able to escape. I’m not as young as I used to be. But I’ve always managed to escape so far.
I wander sometimes, if you can call the painstaking, difficult type of navigation wandering. I go from room to hallway to room, squeezed between the stacks, and once in a while I’ll find a slightly more open space; just a little oubliette or alcove. There are some that I recognise, and some that I don’t. There might be a chair there, with only enough space to sit down and face the stacks all around. Or there might be just a tower of lunchboxes, or board games, or knitting yarn, or something else, arranged like a totem pole or a shrine. I remember collecting some of those Things, but not others. But it’s the spaces that trouble me.
Generally I stacked my Things from the far walls, eventually reaching the doorways around the edges of a room, and then filled in the gaps. There would be no reason to leave those spaces in the middle of areas, especially when they’re so difficult to get to. I’d remember doing it.
Sometimes, I’m not sure I’m in the same house.
I find my way through the maze of it all, cookery books and Christmas decorations and cushions and clothing, and then I happen upon an unfamiliar place. There’s no transition from my own house, but I have the feeling that I’ve gone somewhere else. Sometimes I can wander for hours, through the little canyons between the Things, never seeing natural light. And from time to time, I might hear someone close by.
I live alone, without even any pets. I’ve lived alone since my husband died. But I hear someone in here, from behind the stacks of Things. Sometimes they’re just moving around, but sometimes they’re saying something; mumbling or talking to themselves. I can never make it out, but I can hear that it’s a person. I try to find my way around, but there’s no way around, and then I stumble upon another little space that’s been cleared. Then I find myself back in the clutter and the stacks of Things in the familiar rooms of my own house, and I’m not sure where I went or how I got back.
All I know is that there’s more here than you’d think, even with no room to move and everything piled to the ceiling everywhere. There’s more here than you’d believe. Hidden away behind and beneath, but there, somehow, once you find your way through it all. Places and people that weren’t here before.
My goat paths can take you to them.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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