THE LODGER

Latest Winner

By Lynne Hackles

Lynne says: I’m currently living, with the LSO (Long Suffering One), in a rented barn conversion on a 650-acre estate of fields, woods and lakes. The only sound is of birds singing, making this the perfect place to write.

On the 30th January the lodger, tall, white-haired and bone-jutting gaunt, ascended the stairs for the first time and disappeared into the room at the top of the house.

            By mid-February the ladies were beginning to worry.

            “You’ve never heard him, Mum? Never?” asked Susan.

            Mrs Peters, marble white, lay on the bed like a knight’s lady carved on a tomb lid. Through all her stillness the old lady’s mind raged and her eyelids moved.

            Two blinks. No.

            Could it be true? Had Mr Hammond been ensconced in the attic for two whole weeks? Impossible.

            “I’ve not seen him since he moved in but surely while I was out at work he must have come downstairs? Gone to the shops?”

            Two blinks.

            Perhaps he had died or left without saying. No . . . He had paid three months’ rent in advance. He would not have gone away. Death then was the answer.

            Death was always the answer, thought Susan. She stood, the administering angel at the coffin foot of her mother’s bed. Escape could only come through death. Her own or her mother’s. Two lonely women. One imprisoned in flesh. The other blood-tied to her.

            The lodger was supposed to have eased their financial burden. His rent money supplemented the income from Susan’s part-time job. But she had hoped for more than money. Nightly she had prayed for a friend, someone to help her cope with the useless body and eternally beating heart of her mother.

            Anger rose volcanically inside her. Now she had another rotting body to contend with. She burned at the thought. Her temper, like lava, overspilled. Blistering, bubbling, it flowed through the old house. Up and up the stairs it seethed, dragging Susan to the attics.

            And then, on the topmost stair, subsidence. Temper, knees, shoulders, spirit. The poor man could not help dying.

            Susan crept to his door. A floorboard creaked. Her hand gripped the doorknob. The wind moaned in the rafters. A golden thread of light squeezed out of the keyhole. She put her ear against the door panel and listened. From the room came the sounds of children laughing, a chair rocking, hot coals spluttering. From the room came the smells of toasting muffins, brewing tea, floating chalk dust.

            She held her breath. Turned the knob. Opened the door.

            Mr Hammond, in the deep armchair, by the silent radio, looked up and smiled. “Welcome,” he said. His eyes were bright and his sunken cheeks flushed pink. “Sit down.”

            Susan sat in the other armchair on the opposite side of the empty fireplace.

            “I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr Hammond, but Mother and I had not seen you and we were rather worried.”

            The old gentleman nodded. “I told you I would be no trouble. Make no noise. That you would not know I was here.”

            Now Susan nodded and rose to leave. There was nothing else to say. He was not dead. He looked well. At the door she turned. “I was wondering, Mr Hammond, if . . .” She paused. “If you would mind talking to mother sometimes. I have to work mornings and she gets lonely.”

            “I should be delighted, Miss Peters. Delighted.”

            A crackling cold waited on the landing. Frosty ferns were sketched on the skylight. Susan pulled her cardigan closer and shivered. It had been so warm in the room. So warm and yet . . . there was no fire.

            Mrs Peters had company next morning. More than she had ever expected.

            Susan, in the store’s staff room took coffee alone, surrounded by young girls with spiky hair and long green nails gossiping about boyfriends. No-one had time for 46-year-old spinster.

            She arrived home and warmed soup for lunch. As she spoon fed the old lady she noticed how bright her eyes were, how flushed her cheeks.

            “Mum, what’s happened?” And then she guessed. “Has Mr Hammond been to see you?”

            One blink and an added twinkle to the eye.

            Fancy Mr Hammond producing such an effect.

            That evening Susan climbed to the attic but she did not see the lodger. With the ice-painted skylight above her and the threadbare carpet beneath she sat on the top stair listening to the music, the voices, the singing and laughter. Creeping through the keyhole, seeping through the panelling, oozing beneath the door. For long hours she sat soaking up the warmth from the empty fireplace on the lodger’s side of the attic door.

            In the frozen midnight she made her way to bed and lay, confused, between snowy sheets.

            Mr Hammond visited Mrs Peters the next day. And the next. He had time for her. Centuries of time.

            Susan returned from the store each day to see new life in her mother’s face. Susan sat on the topmost stair each night to listen at the lodger’s door.

            On a Wednesday in early March she had a bad headache. The store manageress sent her home midmorning. Home, unexpectedly.

            Pain scratched at her eyes as she stood on the step, fumbling in her bag for the house key. Pain throbbed in time to the music, pulsated to the loud chatter. A golden thread of light squeezed out of the keyhole. Light, warmth, music, voices. She knew all would vanish at her entrance.

            She stepped back and her boots crunched on the stiff white grass. The house windows burned sunshine rectangles on the chilly garden. An intruder, she peeped through the glass, through the net curtains and deeper into the room.

            Eyes widened, mouth opened, knees buckled, fingers gripped the sill.

            Her mother. Her mother, in tiers of lilac silk, was dancing with Mr Hammond. Porcelain-elegant, the figures whirled in and out between the other couples. Fairy light and agile as youth, they waltzed in the brightness. And in the ice-held garden Susan’s mind screamed, Mother can’t move. She can’t move.

            Shaking hands held the key, opened the door to the quiet dimness of a vast empty house. Empty save for the white statue on the bed, the lodger in the chair. Susan walked into the silence.

            “I’m not well,” she moaned and slid to the floor.

            Mr Hammond’s skeletal hands patted her face, held a brandy glass to her lips. “Miss Peters. Should I call for a doctor?”

            He was all concern. With a mysterious strength he lifted her to a chair. “You work too hard. The store, your mother. You should think of yourself sometimes. Get away from it all.”

            Slumped in the chair she searched his eyes and found in their cavernous depths a lilac dress, a child in velvet breeches, horses, candlelight, carriages. Her pain slipped away and a tingling glowing warmth crept in to replace it.

            That night she climbed the stairs to thank him for his kindness. Outside his door she hesitated, listened for the joyous sounds, reached out to experience the warmth. There was nothing.

            She knocked and entered to his command.

            In the attic, years of shadows jostled with icy beams of moonlight.

            “I have been waiting for you,” said Mr Hammond.

            He stood to join the shadows. Stars sparkled in his hair. The moon shone from the caves of his eyes. He reached out a hand to touch her and his bones glittered like ropes of diamonds beneath the cobweb skin. He tugged at her innermost thoughts. The mighty life-draining struggle between the love for her mother and her own need to escape. Her pain and loneliness gave him substance.

            Susan blinked and looked up at the lodger, tall, white haired and bone-jutting gaunt.

            “Who are you?” Susan asked.

            “Help,” he replied.

            “Help for me? For mother?”

            He nodded.

            “Where have you come from?”

            “Time,” he replied.

            He waved a hand to illuminate the attic. Children rolled from the receding shadows. A burning log spluttered in the hearth. A nurse picked up toys and rubbed the blackboard clean.

            “The Nursery,” explained Mr Hammond.

            He led her down the stairs and into the music-filled living room. Mrs Peters was playing the piano. A gentleman in dove grey suit, whiskers twitching, waited to turn the music sheet. Her mother saw her and smiled.

            Mr Hammond led Susan along the passage.

            “A walk outside, Miss Peters?” He held open the door.

            Sunshine, rose scent, bruised grass, splashing water, chirruping birds waited.

            “Escape,” whispered Mr Hammond.

            Susan ventured forth, lifting the hem of her long turquoise gown from the pathway. Dropping the years with each step. A young man hurried across the lawn to join her.

            The lodger smiled and closed the door.