Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Jangled

personal 9 min read

I was fourteen or so. It was late at night; my younger brother had already gone to bed. He’d have been ten, or newly eleven.

It was a dark time. My parents had divorced three years earlier, and the acrimony continued unabated. We saw our father once a week, for a few hours after dinner. He hadn’t been paying the tax that his business owed, and when the government found out, he went bankrupt. The business was secured against the house, and the debt was shocking. The house — where my father no longer lived — was also my mother’s place of business, and if we lost it, we’d lose everything. The stress was constant, and I was exposed to all of it as my mother’s confidant. My brother was kept unaware.

The pressure mounted and mounted, as she and I would sit and struggle with the issue (and possible places we could get money) after she finished teaching at night, typically after 10PM. Then I’d sleep for a while, before I had to get up to make the one-hour trip to high school. I’m not sure how much sleep she got. It went on for too long, and in retrospect, the conclusion was inevitable.

So, it was late at night. My brother was in bed. I’d finished my homework and whatever else I had to do, and had given my mother time to eat her usual very late dinner in peace. I decided to go through to the kitchen (where she spent most of her time, sitting reading or working at the breakfast bar) to see how she was doing. Just like any other evening in recent memory. But this night was different.

She was sitting on the same stool as always. Same position. Already in her dressing gown, makeup removed. The newspaper was on the table, as usual — but closed. She always had her mirror there, perched on top of a cereal box to get it to the right height; an eccentricity. She was looking into it, which wasn’t unusual. I asked how she was. She didn’t answer.

I asked again, more loudly — she’d been fairly deaf in one ear, very prematurely, for most of my life. She still didn’t respond. I moved into her line of sight. She kept looking into the mirror.

I felt the first stirring of unease.

The house was quiet as ever, save for the creaks of the old place settling down for the night. I tried to get her attention several more times, even approaching and reaching out for her, but she only flinched away, remaining in silence. I gradually realised that there was something wrong.

Upstairs in her bedroom, she had a rocking chair. It had always been there, to the best of my recollection. Maybe it came from her previous house, moved during the months immediately before I was born. It held various plush toys and animals. I assume that some were gifts from her many pupils — she’s a dance teacher, with her own school — but some might have been her own from childhood. I never asked. In all those years, I never once asked.

There was a lamb. It was a ropey, woollen thing; not soft. Slender and small, with gangly legs, as indeed a lamb would tend to be. It sat on the rocking chair amongst its stuffed brethren at all times — but not tonight. Tonight, it was in the kitchen.

I hadn’t even noticed it at first. When I did, it was the final bizarre detail that pushed everything just a little bit off-balance. I think she was aware, in some fashion, of me spotting it, because she picked it up and tucked it under her arm. An innocent gesture in most contexts, but here, at night, in the strange silence, there was something ominous about it.

The small voice in my mind that wondered — desperately, by now — if this was a prank of some kind had grown silent. She wasn’t given to that sort of thing, and the other explanation was all too plausible. So much pressure, and stress, and fear of the loss of everything. It takes its toll. There was no surprise there, when you thought about it. It was just the suddenness that was so shocking. As if it had all taken place in the space of an hour.

I decided to call for help. Her sister, and brother-in-law, who lived only a few minutes’ walk away. It was late, but this was the most exceptional of circumstances. An obscure instinct told me that I should call from another room, rather than using the phone that sat in front of her. We had only a land-line, of course — it was the early 1990s — and there were three phones in the house in total. I withdrew from the kitchen, letting the door close, and went to the front hallway to crouch by the small glass table there, with its own handset.

She had already taken the kitchen phone off the hook, and would depress the hook switch when I tried to dial out.

My concern gave away to frustration, and I went back through. I’m not sure what my intentions were, but she stood strangely by her stool, and I diverted to the rear lobby which led to the back door. The door was still locked, but the keys were gone.

I returned to the kitchen, but she was nowhere to be found. Heading through to the front hall, I saw that she’d now retrieved the keys from the front and storm doors, too. We were locked in, with my brother asleep upstairs.

I tried to reason with her, and was met with only blankness — but there was a light in her eyes; intellect and insight still shining there. I assessed the situation, as much as my panicked mind would allow. She was strong, certainly, but she was also only marginally over five feet tall, and with a slim, ballet-dancer’s figure. I was by no means powerfully built, but I was a teenaged boy, and I was taller and heavier. I could take the keys from her, if it came to that. For her own good. I was mindful of my younger brother asleep upstairs, oblivious to all this.

The keys jangled in her pocket. Then she took out the knife.

These situations don’t really happen, I thought to myself. I have a clear and vivid recollection of that phrase. That was all I consciously thought about for some time.

I do remember the taste of adrenaline, and the hyper-awareness. I remember the characteristic looseness then immediate pre-tensing of muscles; the slight and automatic stoop in my own posture; the utter, exquisite detail of every object and surface and sound. If she had lunged, I could have caught her wrist; I knew it. I, the person, was entirely vacant during that long two or three seconds. There was only animal threat and observation.

She turned away, back towards the short flight of a few steps that led to the back hallway and the kitchen beyond. I went the other way, up both main staircases in sequence, to the bedrooms. I went from the bottom to the top instantly. I made no sound. I required no breath. I was a shadow, flitting up the wall.

I went into my brother’s room, and pulled him from bed, telling him we were leaving the house. But he was still half-asleep, and young, and had no reason to believe that any of this was taking place. His skepticism — a life-long trait since those years — was in full force. It didn’t seem like there was any time for debate, and I physically couldn’t take him against his will; he was too big for that.

So I implored him to remain in his room, and I left him behind.

I left him behind.

That thought is made of jagged, shattered fragments, still airborne after twenty years. Bitter and sharp. I left him behind.

I stood at the top balcony, looking over the railing and downwards, but no-one was in sight. The dog had started barking intermittently from below, and I knew it couldn’t be a good sign. I considered going out the skylight and over the roof in the dark. I could unlatch it and push the glass up and away, then swing up via the bars that covered the opening, pulling myself out between them. I was still barely slender enough to fit through. Then it would be a scramble down the angled tiles to two lower levels of roof, and dropping off the rusty old oil tank into the back garden. I’d done it before, but in daylight. And I was younger then.

I’m not sure why I went downstairs again, but that’s what I did. I saw her through there in the kitchen again, with the dog in front of her. She still held the knife. The animal was unsure, and was barking from stress and concern. She, in turn, seemed to shy away from him, without recognising the family pet. I went down the last few stairs to the back hallway, and she caught sight of me. It was only at this point that I remembered the third door.

The short rear hallway towards the kitchen has a single cloak cupboard, but there are also two heavy wooden doors set into the wall beside it, closed with only a security chain, on the hall side. I whipped the chain up and let it fall free, pushed through the doors, and in the near-pitch darkness, went down another flight of stairs that I’d traversed hundreds and hundreds of times. They go below the ground, and lead to a set of rooms that were once for servants, and which now house the bathroom and dressing rooms for pupils of the dance school. The far dressing room also has its own exterior door, after a couple of steps back up to ground level, which opens out halfway up the driveway. That’s how the pupils enter and leave, not using the front gate and staircase and storm doors at all, and certainly not going through the back of the house via the kitchen. The pupils’ door is bolted and locked, but the key was always left in the door. I gambled that it would still be there.

And so it was. A difficult lock, always requiring finesse, and of course the key failed to turn on the first two tries, as I anxiously peered over my shoulder towards the dark alcove that connected this dressing room to the next. But I managed to open it without being able to see, miraculously got up the stairs without tripping, and then I was on the red stones of the driveway, under the night sky.

I looked to my left, towards the rear of the house where the back door was hidden around a corner, but I couldn’t hear anything — and any approaching footsteps would be obvious on the loose stones. So I turned to my right, ran the length of the drive to the black iron gates, and vaulted their six-foot height as if they weren’t there. Then, without looking back, I ran up the hill, past our neighbour’s home, and away. I think I heard my mother’s voice shouting something from behind me, but I couldn’t make out the words, and I didn’t stop.

I don’t know what happened in the house later that night. I don’t recall any of it. I don’t recall going back, and nor do I recall being anywhere else. I don’t recall waking up the next morning, or where I was when I did. I don’t remember any of it at all.

My brother, and indeed the dog, were fine. I was fine — if fine is what you are when you can tell this true tale from childhood, more than twenty years later, as it still echoes around your mind on certain nights. And even my mother was fine, eventually.

She went away for a while, to rest. The word was always rest, and I suppose there was more truth than euphemism in it. No other terms were used. Everything continued.

The lamb went back onto the rocking chair, and as far as I know, it’s been there ever since. My grandmother stayed with us, and took over all the duties of the house. My aunt, and the older pupils, temporarily assumed the reins of the dance school. My brother went back to primary school. I got up, and got dressed, and had breakfast, and left the silent house early in the morning, and walked to the train station, and sat on a train to make the journey across the city to high school, with my headphones on. There was nothing else to be done.

I don’t recall much of that either, for a while.

At length, my mother returned, and a line was drawn under all of it. I don’t remember having a conversation about it; I think it was just assumed that I understood, and was mature enough to deal with it. It was a common assumption, which would eventually break my own mind only a couple of years later. But that was still in the future.

I visited her in the place where she was resting, but only a couple of times. She’d requested that I wear my school uniform, because she’d be proud. I complied without ever considering doing otherwise. There was nothing else to be done.

It didn’t look like a hospital at all; more like a sort of community centre. There were armchairs, and a TV, and tables for board games. There were people shuffling around in both day clothes and night clothes. The nurses weren’t in uniform, but they did have identity badges.

We talked about every sort of nothing that you might imagine, and of course it ran out all too quickly. She seemed remarkably ill at ease, and I knew that it was more from my presence — confronting the reality of all this — than from the environment itself. I think we were both relieved when visiting hours drew to a close. My uncle was waiting in the car outside.

When it was time for me to leave, a kindly-looking middle-aged woman had to unlock the door for me. I remember it clearly.

The keys jangled in her pocket, too.