The night Alice was born was the night everything changed. She was three weeks early, but not a day too soon. And I knew when I looked at her tiny face that I’d do absolutely anything for her…
Before she made her premature arrival, I lay in bed rubbing my massive belly; tired but not sleeping. I imagined my little girl to be a miniature version of me: glassy blue eyes and yellow hair. Every night, since the day I’d found out she was growing inside of me, she’d wandered amongst flocks of sheep in my head. And every night, because the sheep didn’t bring sleep, she soothed me. I couldn’t wait to meet her, my shepherdess of calm.
Cockroaches tick-tocked across the wall above my head, and the yellowed sheets I lay on offered neither warmth nor comfort. The room along with everything inside of it, including myself, stank of stale meat; an odour that was constant and unpleasant, reminding me of long days spent handling raw cuts and swilling spilt blood. The smell stayed on my hands no matter how hard I scrubbed. You’d think I’d have got used to it after four years, but even long walks in the rain couldn’t rid me of the stink that gripped the back of my nose. I never complained though, the lifestyle I was living seemed like a preferable alternative to moving around between bus shelters, subways and other public places that stink of urine. As the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers.
When I lay in bed at night none of it mattered much anyway, not when there was just me and my baby. I dared to hope that she might be the beginning of my happily-ever-after, that somehow, miraculously, everything might change once she arrived. And it did. However my humble world almost tumbled down all around me. The night she arrived our lives were balanced on a knife’s edge, and it all kicked off when Uncle Dorchester yelled up the stairs, “Dempsey, I’m gonna kill you!”
Uncle Dorchester was the only family I had, and likewise. He had no wife or kids, which was hardly surprising because he was a mean old bastard. After my parents were killed in tragic circumstances, the details of which I won’t disclose, Uncle Dorchester took me into his home. It had been an act of convenience, one that held no pretension. He’d made it clear to me from the very start that taking me in was nothing to do with love, sentimentality or even family duty. A cramped room on the first floor of his house was offered in return for my cheap labour, working in his butcher shop downstairs. Naturally, with me being so young, bereaved and scared, it had been an offer I hadn’t been able to refuse - I’d had nowhere else to go and hardly any money to my name. Unfortunately Uncle Dorchester soon proved to be manipulative and overbearing, and I ended up staying with him indefinitely. Way longer than initially thought.
I do wonder how he managed to run the butcher shop before I’d arrived. While I sweated and slaved each day, he was more often than not down in the cellar, amongst stacks of blood-caked crates and dust, playing dominoes with his two pals Ralfie and Jonesy. I use the term pal loosely, however, I didn’t even know who these two men were, I’d never met them. I wasn’t keen on Uncle Dorchester and couldn’t imagine that anyone who actually chose to hang around with him would be in the least bit pleasant, so I stayed out of their way.
When I’d gone to bed that night I’d known they still were in the cellar, I’d heard the low tone of Uncle Dorchester’s voice and the occasional bellow of his cigarette-hardened laughter. It wasn’t unknown for the three of them to be down there till the small hours, drinking and joking and gambling, so the last thing I’d expected was Uncle Dorchester’s sudden outburst.
Surprisingly he’d run up the stairs and burst through my bedroom door before I’d even had time to sit up straight or imagine why he might want to kill me. Despite his scrawny frame he was a force to be reckoned with, and his eyes were mad with whiskey and rage behind jam-jar glasses.
“Little bitch, ya’ve been stealin’ my meat haven’t yer?” he snarled, his long teeth yellowed by nicotine and browned along the gum line with decay.
“No!” I cried, my heart hammering way too loudly behind my ribcage, threatening to disturb my sleeping, unborn baby.
Uncle Dorchester growled and staggered forward, his hands flexed into claws. I knew then that things would get ugly, so with all the heavy, gracelessness of a hippopotamus I jumped from the bed, hoping to put some distance between me and him.
“Thievin’ swine,” he said, trying to close the gap.
He’d been ranting for weeks that his finances weren’t tallying up and had already, in a roundabout kind of way, accused me of selling cuts of meat on the sly to make some extra pocket money, what with the baby coming so soon. But I’d never seen him this riled before.
“I haven’t taken anything from you, Uncle Dorchester,” I said, holding my hands up placatingly, my eyes beseeching.
“Don’t you be lyin’ to me an’ all. If you weren’t up the duff,” he spat, jutting his finger toward my belly, “I’d give you a bloody good hidin’.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I cried. “I swear." Cradling my stomach protectively, tears welled up in my eyes.
“So who’s been takin’ my meat then? Fairies?”
“I…I dunno. What about Ralfie or Jonesy? They’re always here…”
“How dare you.” Pointing his bony index finger to the door, he visibly shook with rage as he commanded, “Get out of my house.”
“But where will I go? It’s half eleven.”
Lurching forward, Uncle Dorchester grabbed me by the wrist and spun me towards the door. “Should’ve thought of that before ya went an’ bit the hand that was feedin’ ya.”
Warm tears dampened my cheeks, and I fought against him as he yanked me towards the landing. My head was spinning with fear and helplessness, panic and desperation. What was I meant to do? Where was I meant to go? I didn’t know the neighbours well enough to ask for help, and being so heavily pregnant, wearing nothing but thin pyjamas, I couldn’t exactly resort to sleeping on the streets either.
Gripping my fingers around the doorframe I dug my bare heels into the filthy landing carpet. If Uncle Dorchester wanted me out of the house I decided I wasn’t going to go easily, he’d have to physically remove me.
“Quit tryin’ my patience, girl. If you don’t get out, then so help me God, I’ll give ya the biggest beltin’ of ya life, just see if I don’t.” He landed a hard slap across my face to substantiate his threat.
I’d taken a lot of physical and emotional abuse from Uncle Dorchester over the years, but the fact he was now threatening the wellbeing of my unborn baby gave me the courage I needed to fight back. It was now or never. Do or die. So I rammed him hard, my hands against his bony chest. I watched as he stumbled backwards, his drunken stupor helping to knock him to the ground. His face contorted with shock and blind fury, and he rolled about on his back like an overturned beetle.
“I’m. Gonna. Kill. You.” The exertion from trying to get up made his words sound raspy and somehow more believable.
I made to rush back to my bedroom, thinking I could barricade myself inside, but before I got anywhere a searing pain flashed across my abdomen, causing me to double over.
“Oh God, please not now.” I groaned, gripping the mound of my stomach. The idea of giving birth had always troubled me, but now I was petrified about how I’d manage to get through the whole ordeal whilst trying to staying alive at the same time.
Thankfully, as quickly as it had started, the excruciating spasm began to subside and I was able to hobble back to my bedroom. But Uncle Dorchester was on his feet again, and I could hear him panting and snarling right behind me. Before I had chance to slam the door shut behind me, he grabbed my arm and flung me round to face him, his other hand painfully cutting down onto my shoulder. Now with his face mere inches away from mine, I could smell the whiskey on his breath and see the white spittle that was foaming at the corners of his thin, cracked lips.
“Ya think that’s pain?” Looking down at my stomach, he balled his fist and said, “I’ll show you what real pain is.”
Call it survival instinct or maternal impulse, but there was no way I was going to stand there and let the old weasel knock me about. Not anymore. This was the end of the line. So as he swung his fist in a wide arc, I blocked the blow with my forearm. It stung like hell but, without pause, I began to windmill my arms, raining blows down onto his head, face and upper body with my fists. And I’m not ashamed to say that I took great satisfaction in the look of shocked hurt on his face as I pummelled him. Over and over I dealt him a hard-landing punch for each and every time he’d caused me pain and misery. I pounded him the full length of the landing, and the most he could do was move back and shrink away, a pathetic mewling sound escaping from his ugly, filthy mouth. I’ll always remember, and cherish, the fleeting look of fear on his face as he ran out of floor space and toppled backwards from the top stair. His arms flailed upwards and I made no attempt to save him. My only regret is that I didn’t spit in his face before he fell.
After the duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum of his body crashing to the bottom of the stairwell, silence ensued. Then another excruciating contraction staggered me; perhaps my unborn baby letting me know that she knew what I’d done.
“It was an accident,” I whispered, squeezing my eyes shut.
When the pain abated I edged down the stairs. Rubbing my hand in small circular motions around the most prominent part of my stomach, I said, “I didn’t mean to do it, sweetheart. We’ll be okay. It was just an accident.”
As I got to the bottom of the stairs the door to the cellar creaked open and two figures seemed to seep into the dingy hallway like shadows. One of them was tall and gangly, the other short and thickset. I froze.
“Course it was an accident, sweetheart,” the tallest said. His face was dominated by a black, toothy grin, and his voice rattled in his throat, deep and phlegmy.
Both men moved to the foot of the stairs. They stopped and looked down at Uncle Dorchester’s broken, unmoving body. The shortest of the two raised a booted foot and nudged Uncle Dorchester’s shoulder.
“Dead as a doornail,” he announced.
“Yup. Looks like you killed him good an’ proper, love,” the tall one said, fixing me with eyes that shone as yellow as hazard warning signs.
I gasped and shrank away.
This show of fear inspired a chuckle from the tall one; short, raspy wheezes. “We’ll help get rid of the body if you like?” he offered, bending down and lifting one of Uncle Dorchester’s feet as though he meant to drag him off.
“But…why would you want to do that?”
Extending one of his hands to me, with a wink, he said, “I’m Jonesy, pet.”
His hand was filthy black with yellowed, claw-like nails. I ignored the offer of a handshake, and shuddered inwardly.
“Jonesy and Ralfie, I know who you are,” I said. “You’re supposed to be Uncle Dorchester’s friends though, why would you offer to help get rid of his body?”
Jonesy belly laughed.
Ralfie simply grinned and said, “Ha! That old goat didn’t have any friends.”
“No siree,” Jonesy agreed.
“Look, I think I’d better call the police,” I said, becoming increasingly unnerved by Jonesy and Ralfie.
As I made my way towards the hallway telephone, Jonesy grabbed my arm. “You sure you want to do that?”
Another shock of pain gripped my belly. I bit down on my lip and winced. White lights danced behind my eyes. Jonesy held fast to my arm and led me to the broken-backed chair by the telephone. Urging me to sit down, as though he was some kind of gentleman, he said, “The way I see it is if you go calling the police they’ll take your baby away. I mean, the accident wasn’t completely your fault, but still, you killed the old prick fair and square. Do you honestly think the police will take pity on your plight?”
“Not on your Nelly,” Ralfie injected.
“You’ll be lucky if you get to hold the little ‘un before social services come swoopin’ down on it like the vultures they are,” Jonesy concluded.
I wasn’t sure whether what Jonesy said was right or not, but I couldn’t risk my baby being taken away from me. She was all I had, and all I ever wanted. I needed more time to think. But with the baby demanding an early entry into the world, time was something I definitely didn’t have.
Jonesy swept loose hair away from my face, tucking it behind my ears. He stroked my sweaty forehead with the backs of his calloused fingers, soft and gentle, almost like a lover.
“Leave Dorchy to me and Ralfie, eh love? We’ll sort him out. You go an’ take care of yourself. Go deliver that little ‘un.”
With not much hesitation I found myself nodding. It wasn’t that I was altogether happy with what Jonesy and Ralfie were suggesting, which still I wasn’t entirely clear on anyway, but giving birth to my daughter was meant to be a joyous event. Pondering further over Uncle Dorchester’s dead body would taint the moment irrevocably. So as Jonesy and Ralfie dragged Uncle Dorchester down into the depths of the cellar I didn’t give a second thought as to what they meant to do with it. Instead I took myself upstairs, back to my bed, where an hour later I was holding Alice in my arms for the very first time.
Alice and I stayed upstairs, just the two of us, till the following afternoon. Luckily it was Sunday so the shop downstairs was closed. I knew people would need their meat fixes by Monday though, so I needed a plan. I also needed to find out what Jonesy and Ralfie had done to Uncle Dorchester’s body, something didn’t feel right, so while Alice was sleeping in her Moses basket, I went downstairs and headed straight to the dismal depths of the cellar. At the bottom of the wooden stairs, I felt around the cold brick wall for the light switch and flicked it on. A bare, low-energy lightbulb, dangling from the ceiling, highlighted empty crates stacked around the room’s circumference, and a heavily chipped wooden table in the centre. Four chairs were pushed in around the table. Neither Jonesy or Ralfie was present, and nor was Uncle Dorchester.
This troubled me greatly.
I turned to leave, making my way back up the wooden steps with my mind going into overdrive. What had they done to his body? Would I ever see them again? Would they try to blackmail me?
Maybe it’s not too late to call the police.
As though my thoughts had been read, the gruff voice of Jonesy said, “Now why would you want to go an’ do that? We took care of business didn’t we? Just like we said.”
Spinning around I saw Jonesy and Ralfie sitting at the table, dominoes set out in front of them.
I was temporarily lost for words, my mouth agape. “What..? But…You weren’t here before.”
Jonesy shuffled ivory-coloured dominoes around the table top noisily. Without looking up he said, “We’re always here, chicken. You just never saw us before.”
“What did you do with Uncle Dorchester’s body?” I asked. “And why are you helping me?”
“Oh we aren’t helpin’ you, darlin’.” Jonesy shook his head and fixed me with his acid gaze. There was something of mocking and contempt in those eyes. “We aren’t the charitable types. See, we used to belong to your uncle Dorchy, but since you’ve inherited his home – our home – it’s only right that you inherit us too. Ain’t that right, Ralfie?”
“‘Fraid so.” Ralfie settled his own yellow eyes on me, his fat face grinning and gruesome like some predatory deep sea species.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I was more confused than ever.
“Hell is exactly what we’re talkin’ about,” Ralfie said, pointing a finger gun at me.
“Your uncle Dorchy was a bad man, sugar lips. A very bad man,” Jonesy explained. “And let’s just say that durin’ his miserable existence he’d managed to stir up more evil than his skinny, crooked body could contain.”
“Therefore…voila, here we are,” Ralfie said, holding his arms in the air as though accepting a silent round of applause for his being there. “An extension of your dearest Uncle Dorchy.”
“Oh I suppose it may seem lame and ridiculous, I know,” Jonesy said, frowning. He stood up and the legs of the chair he’d been sitting on scraped across the cement floor like nails down a chalkboard. “But what Ralfie says is all true. You could say we were your Uncle Dorchy’s demons. Whether he wanted us or not, he created us.”
“Yeah,” Ralfie said. “He created us and entertained us, but the tight-fisted old bastard wouldn’t feed us, can you believe that? He made us, but he wouldn’t feed us.” He shook his head in disgust.
“But we took from him anyway.” Jonesy winked at me and grinned that awful lascivious grin of his.
“You mean you were responsible for all the meat that was going missing?” I asked.
“Of course. And it was great fun winding Uncle Dorchy up about it last night. We convinced him it was you, see. Cantankerous fool was always easy to wind up.” Ralfie laughed.
Jonesy threw him a stony look and said, “Of course, we would have stepped in if he’d gone too far with you, poppet. But you took care of things yourself, didn’t you? And don’t you go worryin’ your pretty little head about it neither, Uncle Dorchy had it coming.”
“But…” I looked around the cellar in case I’d missed something. “Where is he? His body, I mean. Where is it?”
Jonesy licked his top lip. “Like Ralfie said, Dorchy didn’t feed us too well, so we made up for that a little.”
“Surely you don’t mean…you don’t mean you’ve eaten him?”
“Don’t look so shocked, tuppence,” Jonesy said. “You hated the old prick too and at least this way he’s out of your hair. Now you have the house all to yourself, a gorgeous baby girl to cuddle, and us to play with down here.”
“Whoa, whoa, the house isn’t mine,” I said, shaking my head. “Uncle Dorchester would never have left it to me.”
Jonesy clucked his tongue and wagged his finger at me. “Ah but nobody knows he’s dead, flowerpot. And do you think anyone’s gonna report that old ballbag missing?”
“Well, maybe not. I don’t know. But this isn’t right, I can’t do this. I can’t run this house on my own.”
“Oh quit gettin’ your knickers in a twist,” Ralfie chided. “We know where Dorchy kept his cash. There’s lots of it too. Tightfisted idiot didn’t use a bank, so you’re sittin’ on a small fortune. Just think of the future you could have with that little ‘un of yours. Nice big house, plenty of money to keep her clothed and fed. She’ll be able to have a decent education too. Everything you didn’t have. You’d be a fool not to jump at the chance.”
“What’s the catch?” I asked warily.
“There is none. All you have to do is visit us down here once in a while and feed us.”
Jonesy flicked his tongue across his bottom lip. “So what do you say, princess?”
My mind was whirring with possibilities and doubts. “I’ll need to think about it,” I said, stunned that I was so readily considering their offer. Alice’s future was worth it though, and it wasn’t as though Uncle Dorchester didn’t owe us that much. I turned to leave the cellar. Before I’d even reached the top of the stairs, though, I’d made up my mind.
“Okay,” I said, turning to face them. “I’ll come back after Alice’s feed and you can show me where the money is.”
Ralfie clapped his hands together and Jonesy grinned and winked at me.
“Oh but there’s one condition to all of this,” I said, balling my fists and resting them on my hips.
Jonesy’s eyes narrowed and the smirk faded from his face. “And what would that be?”
“That you stay the hell away from Alice. I don’t want you talking to her or looking at her. In fact don’t even breathe her name, okay?”
Jonesy and Ralfie guffawed. Jonesy made a sign on his chest and said, “Cross my heart.”
I left Jonesy and Ralfie in the dingy cellar and upon entering the ground floor hallway I could hear Alice crying; the hungry, helpless call of a newborn that no mother can ignore. I scurried up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, but as I neared the top her cries ceased and I could hear nothing more than soft whimpering. Pushing my bedroom door open, my heart sank and the blood drained from my face. A young man with dark hair was standing by the cot. He was cradling Alice to his bare chest, making soothing shushing noises at her.
“What are you doing?” I screamed, terrified and outraged all at the same time. “Put her down!”
It was only then that he looked up and regarded me with feline-yellow eyes. I gasped.
He put an index finger to his lips. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “I won’t harm her, I just wanted to help.”
Springing forward I snatched Alice from his arms and held her protectively, rocking her up and down.
“Are you one of them?” I asked, my eyes never leaving his. His irises were yellow, exactly like Jonesy’s and Ralfie’s. But that was the only likeness he shared with Uncle Dorchester's demons. This demon before me was young and handsome, and his skin wasn’t filthy with grease, nicotine and sweat.
He smiled wanly and shook his head. “No, not exactly.”
“Who are you then?”
He stuffed his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and said, “My name’s Ridley.”
“Ridley?” My eyes narrowed in suspicion. “That’s the name I had picked out if I’d had a boy instead of Alice.”
“I know.” He smiled again, his teeth straight and white and friendly. “That’s why it’s my name.”
“But…I don’t get it.” I shook my head, not liking where this seemed to be going.
“I’m yours, Dempsey. You created me.”
“You mean you are like Jonesy and Ralfie?”
“No. They were borne of your uncle, I’m nothing like them.”
“So, are you here because I killed Uncle Dorchester? Are you a demon sent to torment me because I’m evil?”
Ridley put his strong hands on my shoulders. He was as real as anybody I’d ever met, certainly no figment of my imagination. He raised my chin with his fingers, and looked into my eyes. “No, Dempsey. You’re a lot of things but you’re not evil. You have more guilt than one person can bear, that’s all.”
“Ah.” I bit my lip. “So does that mean you’re my guilty conscience?”
His right eyebrow cocked and he smiled good-humouredly. “I suppose, in a roundabout kind of way, yes you could say so. But I prefer to be called Ridley.”
He held me for hours, allowing me to cry freely onto his shoulder, and he made a pact that he’d stay with me forever. He’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a man, and in the two years following Uncle Dorchester’s death he’s stayed true to his word. We’ve lived as best friends and lovers, and I know for a fact that he’ll stick with me till the day I die.
As for Jonesy and Ralfie, I never go down into the cellar anymore. Ridley goes to play dominoes with them instead, and he takes food with him. All three of them dine together. Jonesy and Ralfie rarely wander up from the cellar, and although Ridley can wander freely all around the house he can never leave it, so when I go out and about, taking Alice to the playground and to the shops, I pretend to be a single mother, even though I’m not. It’s just much easier that way. I’m not quite sure what will happen when Alice starts talking properly, and when she starts going to school – we’ll have to cross that bridge, together, when we come to it. You see, other people wouldn’t believe in Ridley like I do. They’d be quick to call me delusional and label me with psychiatric terms. They’d all shake their heads and talk about me behind my back, and, worse still, they’d try to take Alice away from me. I won’t let that happen though. Not ever. It’s me, Alice and Ridley all the way.
And then, of course, by next summer there’ll be four of us...
I just found out this morning that I’m pregnant with Ridley’s baby.