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Uncle Vernon

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When Alison spends an illicit weekend with her boyfriend she finds she has bitten off more than she can chew. Gary’s household is eccentric to say the least, and there is something very peculiar about

Horror / Humor
5.0 2 reviews
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Uncle Vernon

Alison was sneaking down the back stairs at Gary’s house. Sneaking because she had just spent an illicit night in Gary’s bedroom. Back stairs because Gary’s house actually had two staircases. Imagine!

It was an enormous, rambling house with three storeys. Once the family that lived in it must have had servants. The front staircase was wide and grand and led from a hallway at the front up one flight to the family bedrooms. The back staircase was narrow and dark and led from a tiny corridor between the kitchen and the back yard up two flights to the erstwhile servants’ quarters in the attic space under the eaves.

There were two big bedrooms, presumably one for the male staff and one for the female staff. She had asked Gary about it but he knew nothing about the house and clearly wasn’t interested.

God, if she’d lived in a house like this, she’d want to know all about it. She’d be in the library looking up all the old records, trying to find out who had lived there. Wealthy people, surely. All Gary knew was that his mother had inherited it but not, sadly, any money with which to maintain it. Consequently the place was falling down around their ears. Literally.

Gary’s bedroom was freezing. The original window had been replaced with one of those sash windows on cords, and one of the two panes had no glass in it. So not only was there frost on the inside of the glass, but the weather got into the room, and this morning it was so foggy she couldn’t find her clothes. Gary had laughed, but it wasn’t funny.

“Careful,” he said, “There’s a hole in the floor down there at the other end.”

There was, too. A huge, gaping hole. And to make it worse, it was directly over the front garden. The house was Tudor, half-timbered, with the top-most storey jutting out a few extra feet, and the hole in the floor was in the jutting-out bit, right in front of the house. So if you fell out, assuming you survived the fall, you’d have the added humiliation of being found stark naked in front of all the neighbours! Gary didn’t seem to think there was anything peculiar about this.

“Dry rot,” he said. “So Da took out the bad floorboards to replace them.”

“But he hasn’t replaced them.”

“Oh, he’ll get round to it,” Gary said comfortably.

What a bloody shambles!

Gary’s household could hardly be more different from her own.

She lived in a neat, three-bedroomed ex-council house on the Plum Tree Estate in the suburbs of Thorlby. Just her and her Mum and Dad. There were a few cousins on her Mum’s side but none of them lived nearby.

Gary, on the other hand, lived in a huge house in the tiny village of Hethersedge, and he had seven brothers and sisters. Seven! Just as well the McCaffreys lived in a mansion.

His two elder sisters, Rose and Sheila, had married and ostensibly left home, but they still seemed to be continually in the house – Rose accompanied by her two small children and Sheila hugely pregnant with her first one. His two elder brothers, Robert and Ernie, still lived at home and both worked at the factory over in Thorlby. They came clumping in every tea-time in their heavy work boots, ate their tea at the kitchen table with single-minded determination and then clumped out again to the pub. Presumably they clumped back at closing time, but Alison had never been in the house that late in the evening until last night. And last night she had been too preoccupied to notice.

Then there was Janice, third sister and house mother since her older sisters had moved out. She liked Janice but was slightly in awe of her. She wasn’t much older than Alison, but taking over the responsibility of running this huge household had made her grow up quickly, and she seemed to actually belong to the next generation up.

Then there was Gary, then his younger brother, Duncan, who was thirteen and a complete pain in the arse and kept spying on them and demanding money to keep quiet about what they were doing. Bastard! Duncan was staying at a scout camp this weekend, which was one reason why they had decided to take the risk of sleeping together last night. It was Halloween and there was going to be a party. With the house so full of other people, it was fairly easy to sneak an extra one in without anyone noticing. But Duncan noticed everything and would certainly have snitched.

And lastly came little Bridget, only ten years old, the youngest child and cause of the demise of Mam, a saintly figure, greatly revered by all the brothers and sisters. Mam’s chair stood empty in the living room. Only the cat, Genghis, had the temerity to sit in it. Genghis was huge and battle-scarred, with only one eye and he sat wherever he liked.

Alison had sat in the chair only once and knew immediately, from everybody’s horrified expression, that she had committed a dreadful faux pas.

Then, besides the brothers and sisters, there was Da, huge and god-like, who strode about and shouted a lot and, according to Gary, came home very late at night, singing operettas and sometimes accompanying himself on the violin. Da had all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on twelve inch records and played them at full volume on an ancient record player which had to be wound up with a handle on the side. When he was really on form, he would join in and sing and dance along with the long-dead performers.

Alison had witnessed this on one supremely embarrassing occasion at a birthday party. Nobody else appeared embarrassed or even surprised. If anyone in her family behaved like that, they’d be carted straight off to the loony bin. But then, the whole McCaffrey clan was a bit odd.

The final member of the family was Granny McCaffrey, who was old, nearly blind and almost completely bald, and who lived in the middle room downstairs, in between the front parlour and the living room. She seemed to live entirely on ham sandwiches with mustard, which were provided every tea-time by the three younger children on a rota basis.

“Doesn’t she ever eat anything else?” Alison had asked and Gary said, “Of course she does. She has cornflakes for breakfast.”

All the McCaffreys were huge and blond with blue eyes, like some remnant of a lost Viking tribe which had landed by mistake in a Yorkshire village and never found its way back. All except for little Bridget who, although blonde with blue eyes, was tiny and dainty, as if there hadn’t been quite enough material left when it came tomaking the last child and she had to make do with what was left over from her much bigger brothers and sisters.

It was one of the things she loved about Gary, his huge size. She felt small and slender walking beside him, and she felt completely enveloped and cherished in his embrace.

She had looked forward to last night so much. Spending the whole night with him in a proper bed. They had had sex before, of course, but usually under very uncomfortable circumstances. Outside in the woods, lying on a blanket and terrified that a passer-by would see them; in the river in the summer, standing partly underwater; on the bench in the bandstand after the park had locked up for the night; and, on one memorable occasion, out in the open air in a ploughed field in February. Gary had said it was unlikely that anyone would be about and he was right as it happened.

She hadn’t enjoyed any of it very much and couldn’t decide whether she was frigid or whether it was to do with the sheer discomfort of the venues.

Last night did nothing to resolve the issue. Quite apart from the freezing temperature of the bedroom, Gary’s bed was itself an instrument of torture. It was an ancient contraption of metal bedstead and springs, with a feather mattress. The springs creaked alarmingly at the slightest movement, even completely innocent movements, like scratching your nose, and the mattress had developed a Gary-shaped declivity which resisted all attempts to insert an extra person.

Consequently, she had spent the entire night clinging grimly to the edge of the bed to prevent herself from sliding down into the middle. Every so often she had dozed off and rolled on top of Gary with a resounding smack and a crash of bedsprings. Each time he had grunted and shoved her off again and she had re-fashioned her grip on the bed-frame and listened, in an agony of embarrassment, for any tell-tale signs that someone had heard.

NOT the most romantic of nights.

The plan was to sneak down the back stairs, let herself out the back door, sneak round to the front of the house and then knock on the front door, bold as brass, just as if she were arriving to visit Gary in the usual way.

As she reached the landing between the two upper floors, the boards gave a horrendous creak and she stopped dead, afraid that someone had heard. But nothing happened. When you lived in such a big house, full of so many people, you probably didn’t hear noises. You probably just screened it all out. She gave a nervous swallow and continued down the next flight.

This was the last time, she told herself. She would give him the ultimatum today. She was never going to stay overnight again unless he fixed the window and the floor and did something about that bloody mattress. The ploughed field had hardly been worse and she hadn’t had to stay there all night.

She reached the ground floor without further incident and was just reaching for the handle on the back door, when she realised there was someone in the kitchen. She could hear singing – Janice, singing along with the radio. Damn! She didn’t think she could let herself out the back way without being seen from the kitchen window. She was still trying to work out a way round this when suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder and she gave a small shriek of surprise and turned round.

Standing in the passage was an enormously tall, incredibly thin man. His face was so pale it was almost translucent. His hair was completely white and swept back from his forehead in a perfect Dracula’s widow’s peak. He was dressed entirely in black, the collar of his coat turned up like Dracula’s cloak. And his eyes were staring and colourless in the dim light of the passage.

She screamed a full-blooded, heroine in a horror film scream. And the man put up his hands as if to fend her off. Long, thin, incredibly white hands with long, thin, pointed fingers.

She screamed again and was just taking a breath to scream a third time, when the kitchen door opened and Janice said, “It’s all right. It’s only Uncle Vernon.”

Alison flung herself, sobbing, into Janice’s arms and looked back into the passage way. The man had disappeared! How? There was nowhere for him to go.

At that moment Gary came clattering down the stairs.

What the fuck?”...

Gary!” Janice said. “Watch your language! It’s only Uncle Vernon.”

Ten minutes later, sitting at the kitchen table with her hands wrapped round a mug of hot tea, Alison was beginning to feel a bit less shaky.

“I’m sorry, I’m really sorry,” she kept saying.

“That’s all right,” Janice said. “I’m not surprised you screamed. We forget how scary Uncle Vernon is because we’re used to him.”

“It’s not just that.” Alison gave a little shudder. “I feel really bad about staying the night without telling you.”

Janice’s eyes widened in surprise. “Gary,” she said, “Why don’t you put some toast on?” And then, as Gary got up and went over to the toaster, Janice put her arm round Alison’s shoulder and leant forward to look into her face. “Gary’s a grown-up,” she said. “He can do what he likes in his own room. But I’m glad it’s you he brings home. You’re good for him. I’m so glad he’s chosen someone with a bit of personality instead of some of the bimbos he went out with before. You’ve got something about you, love.”

She patted her on the shoulder.

“The thing about Uncle Vernon,” she went on, as Gary deftly caught two slices of toast as they shot out of the toaster, “is he used to be normal.”

There was a disbelieving snort from the other side of the room and Gary came back to the table with toast, butter and jam.

“Plates, Gary,” Janice said, without even looking round. Gary sighed and bent down to get plates out of the cupboard.

“Well, according to Da he used to be normal. That was before he joined the Merchant Navy.

“The thing is, he was on this ship with a load of weirdos who were into some strange cult and he got in with them.”

Gary placed the plates on the table with unnecessary noise.

“Knives, Gary,” Janice said absently. “And put more toast on.”

She reached for a piece of toast and placed it squarely in the middle of her plate.

“And anyway, he got in with this cult and what they did was, they sort of de-programmed him.”

Alison looked up from her mug.

“The idea was, they sort of cleansed you. Cleared your mind out and then re-programmed you. They believed all sorts of weird stuff, like this way you released your soul and you could go anywhere and do anything in your abstract - no, I mean astral - body.”

Gary banged three knives down on the table and went back to the toaster.

“So, what happened?” Alison whispered.

Janice paused in her toast-buttering. “Only the bloody ship went down, didn’t it. Sank with nearly all hands. Leaving poor Uncle Vernon only half-programmed.”

“Not programmed at all, more like,” Gary butted in.

Janice ignored him.

“Anyway, he’s never been the same since. He hardly ever speaks and when he does he sounds like a robot. And he sneaks about so quietly, you could swear his feet didn’t touch the ground.”

Alison remembered something. “Didn’t Robert and Ernie put down flour once?”

“Yeah.” Both Janice and Gary laughed. “It was when we were little. Gary can’t have been more than four. They swore Uncle Vernon just floated and they put flour down in the lobby to see if he left foot-prints.”

Alison nodded. Gary had told her the story once and she had dismissed it as a small child’s fantasy.

“And did he?”

“Well, no. He didn’t actually. But maybe he just came in a different way.”

Alison pulled her cardigan closer around her. Suddenly she felt very cold.

“Anyway, he thinks he’s lost his soul. He thinks it’s wandering about somewhere and all he has to do is find it and he’ll be complete again.” Janice stopped and shrugged. “It’s sad really.”

Gary came back to the table with more toast.

“And that’s why,” he said, “he always comes home about this time of year.”

When Alison showed no sign of getting it, he went on, “Halloween, right? He thinks there’s more chance of finding his soul at Halloween, because that’s when they’re all wandering about loose, so to speak.”

“And what do you think?” Alison said. “Do you think he’s lost his soul?”

“Of course not,” Gary snorted. “He’s just plain barmy.”

“That’s not nice,” Janice said. “He’s obviously had some kind of nervous breakdown. Don’t you think, Alison?”

Alison looked down at her nearly empty teacup and swirled the dregs in the bottom.

“I think,” she said, “that maybe having a nervous breakdown is just another way of saying losing your soul.”

Gary and Janice both looked startled.

“But why does he come here?” she asked. “Surely his soul was lost at sea.”

Janice chewed a piece of toast thoughtfully and then swallowed. “Maybe he thinks it’ll come home,” she said.

“Anyway,” Gary chimed in, “he’d have a fuck of a job finding it in the middle of the bloody sea.”



“So what does he do?” Alison asked. “Does he just wander about calling for it, like a lost cat?”

The other two laughed.

“No,” said Gary. “He does stuff in the cellar.”

“What stuff?”

“God knows,” Gary gave an exaggerated shudder. “There’s no way I’m going down there.”

“And he goes up to the cemetery,” Janice said, her voice very quiet. “He always goes up to the cemetery.” She shrugged.

“It’s all a load of shit anyway,” Gary said. “Poor old bugger isn’t going to find his soul. What does he think, anyway? Does he think it’ll be going from door to door doing trick or treat? Halloween’s got nothing to do with souls, anyway. It’s witchesand stuff, isn’t it?”

Alison cleared her throat. “Er, well, it has actually,” she said, with an apologetic note in her voice. “We did it last term. The early Christian Church.”

Usually people were bored stiff when she talked about her degree course, but Janice and Gary sat forward in their seats, eyes fixed on her, with every appearance of complete concentration.

“They were clever, you see. When they converted the pagans, they didn’t boot out all their old beliefs and rituals, they just added Christian ones on top. Like Christmas. They just plonked it on top of the old midwinter festival of Yule. And they put All Saints’ Day on top of the old All Souls’ Day.”

Gary and Janice were completely fascinated.

“On the eve of All Souls’ Day, the people used to bake special cakes called soul-cakes and take them up to the cemetery. They’d light candles and put food on the graves.” Gary and Janice exchanged a meaningful look and Alison stopped. “What? What is it?”

“Go on, Gary said. “What happened then?”

Alison looked confused. “That’s it,” she said. “They put lights and food on the graves.”

“But why?” Janice asked. “What for?”

“I suppose,” Alison went on reluctantly, “I suppose they were waking the dead.”

Gary let out a long sigh. “Jeeeesus.”

Janice just looked worried.

“They still do it in some parts of the world,” Alison went on, “and in Spain and Mexico they still call it the Day of the Dead.”

“They still bloody do it here,” Gary muttered. “Or, at least, Uncle Vernon does.”

“I’d like to know what goes on in that cellar,” Janice said.

Alison wished she hadn’t come. And she particularly wished she hadn’t told her mother she was spending the weekend with a girlfriend and going to her Halloween party, which was, in fact, perfectly true except for the girlfriend bit. Now she couldn’t go home.

Later that evening, the house was full of people, most of them large and blond. Gary’s sisters and their husbands and children, Robert and Ernie, Janice, Gary, Bridget and Da. Even Granny McCaffrey had been wheeled into the front parlour to take part in the celebrations.

Little Bridget came up to Janice and tugged her skirt, a worried look on her face.

“What’s the matter?” Janice asked.

“I can’t find any ham for Granny’s sandwiches,” she said.

“Oh, damn.” Janice looked at the table, all laid out with party food. She had used the last of the ham for the quiche and forgotten all about Granny’s supper. It was too late now. The shops were shut. The pair of them went into the kitchen and examined the contents of the fridge. There was practically nothing in it. Janice had used up just about everything for the party and she didn’t want to start dismantling her carefully-arranged dishes in order to find something Granny might want to eat. She grabbed a pot of strawberry jam and passed it to Bridget. “Here, use this.”

Bridget looked at it doubtfully.

“Go on. She’ll probably never notice the difference.”

Alison was upstairs in Gary’s room. She had spent most of the day making it more habitable. Da was a something of a hoarder and she had found various useful items in the garden shed. She had commandeered an old wooden door and she and Gary had carted it up the stairs and laid it over the hole in the floor. Gary had puffed and panted dramatically throughout this exercise, complaining bitterly that there was no problem with the hole in the floor as long as you remembered it was there. She had given him a withering look.

“If you want me to spend another night in there, you’re going to have to do something about it. I can’t believe you’ve just put up with a hole in the floor and no glass in the window all this time. And as for that bloody mattress!”

Gary had quailed and set to with a will. Now the hole in the floor was safely covered over, the window was boarded up with some old plywood, also from the garden shed, and the mattress had been replaced with a spring mattress that had been Rose’s before she left home.

“There!” Alison said, surveying her handiwork with pleasure. “That’s going to be so much more comfortable.” She felt a little thrill at the prospect of a proper night in bed with Gary. Always assuming she could keep her mind off Uncle Vernon and stop herself from wondering what he was doing down in the cellar. Of course, he probably wouldn’t be in the cellar by then. He’d probably be up at the churchyard trying to call up his soul. She gave a shudder, then laid her case on the bed and took out her outfit for tonight.

She was going to go as Morticia from the Addams Family. She had a long black skirt her mother had lent her and a slinky black top her mother knew nothing about, which was almost see-through, and some fabulous slinky black underwear that would have horrified her mother if she knew.

With a satisfied smirk, she sat down at the dressing table and started to apply some rather radical make-up.

Gary was already downstairs helping Janice with the party preparations. They had decided he would never get away with being Gomez, being so tall and fair, but he made a very passable Lurch. All he had to do was comb his hair forward and put on one of his old suits which was slightly too small for him. Alison had made him up with white face powder and smudged dark eye-shadow under his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks. Now he looked almost as spooky as Uncle Vernon.

He was cutting turnips into lanterns with scary faces, helped by Bridget, who was dressed as very small ghost.

“Where’s Alison? I thought you said she was coming tonight.”

“She’s upstairs getting changed,” Gary said. Bridget gave him a side-long glance. “Is she staying in your room again tonight, then?”

“Jesus!” Gary nearly dropped the turnip he was carving. “What makes you think she was in my room?”

“What, with the noise you were making? What were you doing to her?”

Gary blushed scarlet under the white make-up. “Never you mind,” he said. “And if you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.”

He waved his knife threateningly.

Bridget just laughed. “I don’t need to tell anyone,” she said. “The whole house must have heard you.”

Gary gave her a menacing look, but she just turned away with a smug expression and carried on cutting out the eyes in her turnip.

By the time they had finished and the candles had been placed in the turnip heads, the party in the front parlour was in full swing. Someone had brought a portable record-player, which was a huge improvement on Da’s ancient contraption, and everyone was dancing to ‘The Monster Mash’ amid peals of laughter.

Alison came downstairs, looking stunningly beautiful and rather mysterious, her long black hair framing her pale face, her eyes made-up like Cleopatra’s with lashings of mascara. With the eye of faith you could just make out her black underwear under her gauzy top. Gary gave a little gasp, all thoughts of partying banished by rather more lewd imaginings.

Alison looked round, assessing who was there. The McCaffreys accounted for at least half the gathering, but there was also a fair showing of Gary’s friends, people who worked with Robert and Ernie, and Da’s cronies from the pub. Uncle Vernon was not in evidence.

Bridget came up to her and grabbed her hand.

“Are you going to sleep with Gary again tonight?” she asked.

Her voice seemed to carry right across the room and Alison thought there was a sudden pause in the merrymaking, but then everyone seemed to carry on as if nothing had been said.

“Certainly not,” she said.

“We had to give Granny jam in her sandwiches,” Bridget said with a confidential air.

“Really?” Alison was trying to spot Gary and not really paying attention.

“I was really worried she was going to be upset.” Bridget tugged her arm. “Are you listening?”

Alison bent down towards her. “Sorry, Darling, you’re quite right. Tell me again.”

“We had to give her jam because there was no ham left and I was really worried she wouldn’t like it, but Janice said she probably wouldn’t even notice.”

Alison smiled. “And did she?”

“Well,” Bridget said, folding her arms. “I asked her after if the sandwiches were all right, and do you know what she said?”

Alison shook her head.

“She said, ‘Very nice, Dear, but not quite enough mustard’.”

Alison laughed out loud and several people looked over at her, including Granny herself, who waved and gave her a beatific smile.

Gary came up to her then and took her arm in a proprietorial sort of way and Alison smiled smugly and let him lead her to the sideboard and give her a drink.

Several dances, sandwiches and drinks later, Alison had completely forgotten about Uncle Vernon and was enjoying herself immensely. Some of the younger ones proposed going round the village for trick or treat and she was all for it. “We could just sneak off upstairs,” Gary whispered, nuzzling her neck.

“No way,” Alison laughed. “The party’s just warming up. Don’t be such a wet blanket.”

And then, as Gary looked crestfallen and a little annoyed. “We’ve got all night.”

He smiled down at her, slightly sinister in his Lurch make-up, but still her beloved Gary underneath and she felt a sudden rush of affection for him, accompanied by a little thrill of lust. Yes, it might work out all right tonight.

They went out into the cold streets, their breath frosting in the air, and Alison, regretting that she had chosen such a flimsy outfit, snuggled into Gary’s jacket as they walked along with the revellers, singing as they went.

There must have been a lot of other parties going on in the village, since there were far more people about than she had ever seen before.

“Gary,” she said, aware of a note of nervousness in her voice, “how many people live in Hethersedge?”

“Oh. I don’t know.” He gave a shrug. “There’s about fifty houses. Couple of hundred maybe?”

She gave a little shudder. Surely there were more than that just walking through the streets and there were even more up at the church. She could see lights over at the cemetery and a lot of dark shapes. Some of them seemed to be flitting about in an odd, disjointed way. She looked again at the people in the streets. Many of them were dressed as ghosts and vampires, demons and witches. There was even a clown which was somehow more disturbing than any of the others. Of course, she was just getting the heebie-jeebies because of the fancy dress and because it was, after all, Halloween, but some of them looked horribly convincing. A zombie came up beside them and she could have sworn bits of him were dropping off as he went past. In between the figures there seemed to be some more insubstantial shapes … flitting about.

“Gary,” she said in a tiny voice. She wasn’t sure he had heard her. He was marching along, smiling, obviously unconcerned by the people round about.

In the background, on the edge of her hearing, someone had begun singing a much older song, “Soul, a soul, a soul-cake. Please good missus, a soul cake...”

The voice was high and reedy and didn’t sound quite human.

“Gary!” She tugged at his sleeve, and he looked down at her. “Yes?”

For a moment, she misgave. In the pale light of the street lamps, he was Lurch, smiling with just a suggestion of pointy teeth. Then his expression changed to one of concern. “What, love? What is it?”

She managed a weak smile. “Maybe we should go back now. Go in the back way.”

Gary’s face lit up with delight and she heaved a silent sigh of relief. She just wanted to get out of the streets and pretend she wasn’t seeing what she thought she was seeing. She wanted to feel safe.

The walk back seemed to take much longer than the walk out. Everybody was going in the opposite direction, away from the village, up towards the cemetery. Now almost all the people had a shadowy, insubstantial look, as if Uncle Vernon was indeed calling up all the stray souls and they were making their way up to the cemetery to meet him. Once, she saw the clown again. He stepped out suddenly from behind a hedge, his false red smile a purple gash in the moonlight. He waved at her and beckoned and she shuddered and turned her face into Gary’s chest. She looked up at him and his face bore a strained, anxious expression. “Where’ve they all come from?” he muttered.

At last, they reached the back door of the house and Alison stepped thankfully through into the passageway.

Uncle Vernon stepped out from the shadows. He was holding something in front of him, his arms stretched out as if he was offering it to her. And it was dripping. She could hear, quite clearly, a steady plop as the dark liquid hit the stone floor of the passage. And then he spoke. And what he said chilled her to her soul.

She reeled back into Gary, who was closing the door behind him, and heard his “What the -?” of surprise, as she collapsed against him. When she opened her eyes, Uncle Vernon had gone.

The party was still in full swing in the front room. It was so reassuring to be surrounded by tall, friendly people cavorting about, that she began to feel the whole weird scenario had been in her imagination. After two brandy and Babychams she was convinced it was. And she would probably have remained convinced if it hadn’t been for the events of the following morning.

Alison woke up feeling warm and satisfied. The experience of sleeping all night with Gary in a comfortablebed was incredible. Not so much the sex, although that was much better than before. It was the feeling of security and love, of being wrapped up in another human being who loved you. And Gary did love her. She knew now. He had told her over and over again and she had fallen asleep with the words ringing in her ears. He was still sleeping. Still, disconcertingly, looking more like Lurch than her Gary. She hoped that this wasn’t some sort of a fetish of hers, that she could only enjoy sex with someone from a horror film. But that seemed unlikely somehow, given her reaction to Uncle Vernon. Now, in the cold light of morning, the whole thing seemed so far-fetched she could hardly believe she had taken it seriously.

She must have been freaked out by meeting Uncle Vernon yesterday morning and then the conversation over breakfast had fed her imagination, so that when she’d walked through the village that night, a group of perfectly ordinary party-goers had been transformed in her mind to something much more sinister. She tried to remember that odd, fluttering movement that she thought some of them had made, but couldn’t quite visualise it.

And as for seeing Uncle Vernon again in the passageway, that was a clear case of hysteria. Now she felt perfectly normal and well-balanced and a little bit ashamed of herself. But mostly she felt full of love for Gary. She brushed her hand across his sleeping face and he woke up with a start.

When he saw her, his expression softened into a smile. “Oh, Alison,” he said, “Alison.” She rolled willingly into his arms.

Later, at breakfast, there was a hammering at the front door. Janice looked up, still with traces of green witch make-up on her face. “Gary,” she said. And Gary got up with rather more good grace than usual.

Two minutes later the house was in uproar. Gary ran up the stairs to wake up his brothers and Da, shouting. “Get up, get up. There’s a little kid missing. They think someone’s taken him. They’re asking everyone to join in the search.”

Loud groans and thumping noises issued from upstairs as the men of the household got dressed and splashed water on their faces.

Somebody said, “Bloody Hell. Where’s the bloody aspirin? Well, is there any Alka-Seltzer then? Oh God, anything. That’ll do.”

“I never understand why grown-ups have to drink so much,” Bridget said sententiously.

From the middle room, Granny McCaffrey could be heard asking plaintively what was going on.

There was a bang from upstairs and another ‘bloody hell’as someone hit their head on a beam.

Then they all came clumping downstairs and charged out of the house.

“Come on,” Janice said, getting up from the table. “We´ll make some flasks of tea and sandwiches and join in the search. Jesus, I hope it’s not one of ours.”

She broke off from her preparations to ring Rose.

Alison took over making the tea as she listened to Janice talking to her sister.

“No, that’s all right. Didn’t mean to worry you. It’s just they didn’t say who it was. Who? Dear God.”

The conversation carried on for a few more minutes with Rose doing most of the talking and with Janice nodding and occasionally asking a question. Finally she said, “Look, I’ll have to go. We need to join in the search.”

She came back in the kitchen looking distressed.

“It’s the Jenkins’ little lad,” she said. “He’s only two. He was snatched from his cot sometime during the night. The window was open and they think that’s how they got in. He was too small to get out of his cot by himself. Anyway, he couldn’t have reached to open the door.”

Janice pressed the back of her hand against her mouth to stifle a sob. “Isn’t it awful!”

Alison sat, numb with shock, the sandwiches forgotten. She had a sudden vivid memory of Uncle Vernon the previous night. Now she no longer believed it was her imagination and she had a dreadful premonition about what he was holding. Now she could remember with perfect clarity every word he had said.

“I did it!” he said. “I got it right. I called them up - hundreds of them. They all came. All those from the ship, wet from the sea. And they said it was too late. TOO LATE. They said my soul was lost, born again. SOME BASTARD STOLE MY SOUL! But I was too clever for him. I got it back, see!”

And, holding the dark, dripping shape above his head, he had turned away towards the cellar.

Alison looked up at Janice, her eyes wide and haunted. When she spoke, her voice was so hoarse she hardly recognised it as her own. “I think we’d better look in the cellar,” she said.

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