Excerpt from The Healing Shard – Chapter 3 - Departure
Emily Goodman put down her knitting needles and listened. She was sure she had heard sounds from the Robinson’s house next door. But young Leo Robinson had phoned her especially to tell her that there would be no-one there until later. She glanced up at the big, round clock above the fireplace. It was 9.15. Perhaps they had come back from the party early. She didn’t think Mrs. Robinson should be going out anyway, not in her condition. But it was none of her business of course. Emily would help anyone where help was wanted or needed, but she was never pushy – never had been, in all her 75 years. Then again, perhaps it was Leo who had come back early. He had told her he’d be back around 10 o’clock.
She sat quietly for a few minutes. The only sound was the gentle ticking of that faithful, old clock that had seen nearly as many years pass as she herself had. Perhaps she had been mistaken after all. She picked up the mug of cocoa from her old, oak coffee table and took a sip, cupping the warm mug in her hands. Then she heard a thump from next door. And another. She slowly placed the mug back on the table. Stiffly, she stood up from her armchair. Her joints were full of arthritis and she stood quietly for a moment, letting the aches subside. Then she went across to the front window and pulled the curtain a few inches to one side. A low hedge separated the Robinson’s garden from her own. Beyond that, she could see the Robinson’s drive. Often, Mr. Robinson’s car was parked there – he didn’t seem to use the garage much. Tonight though, it was empty. As she let the curtain fall back into place, another muffled thud sounded through the wall. Emily decided to take action. The Robinson’s had asked her to keep an eye on the place and keep an eye on it she would.
She went through to the hall and unlocked and unbolted her front door. Pulling her cardigan around herself, she opened the door and peeped out. The front lawn was thick with frost. She looked up and down the road. Nothing moved. She hesitated, not sure whether to just go back inside. There was a gap between the hedge and the front wall of the house, so she could cross into the Robinson’s garden without going out into the road. Still wearing her pink carpet slippers she cautiously stepped outside and crossed to the hedge. It felt slippery underfoot, so she trod carefully. In the distance, somewhere out in the fields, she heard the hoot of an owl.
She squeezed through the gap in the hedge and looked around the Robinson’s front garden. Nothing looked out of place. She could see light through the stained glass in the top of the front door, so she knew that the hall light had been left switched on, as usual. There didn’t seem to be any other lights on. She began to think that she had been mistaken after all. Still, do a proper check now we’re here, she thought. Avoiding a large ornamental urn, she walked along the front wall of the house. The lounge looked to be in darkness, though the Robinson’s thick lounge curtains were drawn across the window. She reached the porch and stopped dead. Something about the big, dark blue front door didn’t look right. She tentatively pushed it and it swung open a few inches. Emily Goodman drew a sharp breath. Young Leo Robinson would never forget to shut the door properly.
“Hello?”, she said softly. “Anyone at home?” She listened intently but there was no sound from within. She pushed the door open wider and leaned inside, not wanting to go any further. She called again but there was no reply. After a few moments she stepped inside.
“Mrs. Robinson?”, she called. “Leo?” All she could hear was the faint tick-tock of a clock somewhere and a gentle creak from the radiator, cooling in the hall. Mrs. Goodman was not often frightened, but she felt an awful, cold fear rising up inside her now. She pushed the door shut behind her and went into the lounge. She switched on the light, half-expecting to see the room wrecked and the TV and hi-fi stolen. But everything looked as it should be. Leo’s magazine lay on the coffee table along with his father’s daily paper and two empty cups. The vacuum cleaner stood in the corner of the room where Leo’s mother had left it that afternoon. The only movement was the brass pendulum of the anniversary clock on the mantelpiece that twisted silently back and forth under its glass dome.
Emily found she was trembling. She could see nothing wrong, could hear nothing wrong. Yet she knew something was wrong. Something touched a part of her that was beyond her five senses. She remembered feeling something similar during the war, a few seconds before a bomb exploded fifty yards from where she sheltered. She took one more look around the room and turned to go. Then a shadow fell across the lounge doorway. Emily froze, her heart skipping a beat or two. She held her breath. The shadow moved and she could hear breathing, faint, rasping and unhealthy, from the hall. She looked around in panic, for somewhere she could hide. Then she caught an odd smell, stale and foul – like forgotten meat rotting in a fridge. The shadow stopped and the breathing paused, as if whoever was out in the hall was listening. Emily wondered for a moment if she could make a dash for the front door. She couldn’t move quickly because of her arthritis but whoever was out there didn’t sound very fit either. But she left it too late. While she pondered, a hand, dirty, gnarled and disfigured, appeared round the door. Emily screamed involuntarily and backed away, almost falling over the coffee table. As she watched in horror, a figure, appeared in the doorway. It was an old man, his breathing hoarse and laboured and his body bent by age and disability. He stood unsteadily in the doorway, holding on to the door. His clothes, an old coat which nearly reached the floor and a battered old hat which hid his face, looked as if they had not been washed in years. The smell, of dirt and decay, was choking her.
“What on earth are you doing?”, Emily demanded, with a voice as brave as she could muster. The old man neither spoke nor moved, his breath rattling in his chest like the patients in the sanatoriums Emily remembered so well from years ago.
“Go away.”, she said quietly. “You have no business here. Leave now and I will forget I ever saw you.” The old man shook his head slowly. Emily tried to see his face. She would need to give the police as good a description as she could. He plainly wasn’t a burglar as she doubted he could carry a cup let alone a TV. She wondered if he had wandered out of the old people’s home on the other side of the town.
“Come on.”, she said again. “Let’s just walk out of here and we can both go back to our homes. Someone must be worried about you.” She took a step towards him but then he started to raise his head and she stopped. As his black eyes met hers she staggered backwards, her mouth dropping open in terror. He gazed at her for a moment, his fathomless stare unwavering, without emotion. Then his mouth twisted into a faint, evil smile and he started to stumble towards her…..
* * *
Keith Robinson felt like saying “I told you so”. He had never wanted to come to this party, from the day his wife had told him he was going. Told, mind, not asked. At first he had refused. Then, over the next week, his refusal had slowly crumbled under relentless pressure until it had finally dissolved into a sulky acceptance. He adopted a different tactic after that, pointing out reasons why it would be inadvisable for them to go. His reasons had ranged from his reputation at the office being damaged by his appearance as an American comic book hero to his wife’s “condition” (as he put it). They had all fallen on deaf ears. And so he found himself at a party dressed in blue tights and a cape with Marilyn Monroe on his arm. One day, he told himself, he would see the funny side of it all. Now though, he was more concerned about his wife’s health. She sat on a stool in John and Karen’s kitchen, pale under her heavy make-up, her head over a bucket tucked between her knees. Karen came bustling in, dressed in 1920’s clothes. She put an arm around Leo’s mother’s shoulder.
“How are you feeling now love?”, she asked. “Any better?” Carol Robinson nodded but didn’t raise her head.
“Just a bit nauseous.”, she said, into the bucket.
“What a shame”, Karen went on, “the party’s just getting going. And Keith was so enjoying himself, weren’t you?” She looked across at Leo’s father, sitting by the sink. He nodded, unable to bring himself to say anything.
“And you haven’t had a drop to drink either.”, said Karen, turning back to Carol, “So it isn’t that.”
“It’s just a touch of heartburn I think.”, said Carol, finally lifting her head from the bucket. “I’ll just sit here quiet for a minute and then we’ll go home. Is that OK with you?” She directed the question at her husband.
“Fine.”, he replied, being very careful to sound disappointed.
“Shame.”, said Karen, then hurried off back to the party. Carol put the bucket on the floor and stood up. A moment later they heard Karen’s high-pitched laugh from the living room.
“She seems very concerned about you.”, said Keith sarcastically. Carol shrugged.
“Let’s go home.”, she said.
To be continued...