I woke in confusion.
Something had shattered the peace in darkness and disturbed me. My eyes moved searching for the familiar. A square of candy striped wallpaper illuminated ny a street light through a naked window looked like prison bars. The paper’s stains and weathered visage were invisible in that early hour when sound travels too far. My breathing came in shallow gasps that echoed in my ears. The duvet rustled about my heaving chest. My head swam from my re-occurring dream. I felt like I’d drunk too much alcohol too quickly. For a second a swell of nausea washed through me, but I steadied myself. Shapes formed and registered: the wardrobe, the chest-of-drawers by the door. More cell-like bars surrounded me. Still the room felt alien. Memories of my dream stalked me. Had that torn me from my sleep? It hadn’t woken me before. Well, okay, a couple of times. But I didn’t think it was the dream this time. Had it been something outside, in the street? Or something closer, in the house? I sat up. The spinning subsided enough for me to climb out of bed. The room pitched and rolled as I stood, and I staggered towards the door. I felt drunk with confusion, and a hint of nausea washed into my throat again then rolled away like a tide against a pebble beach leaving only the taste of bile behind.
I left the room.
At the top of the stairs I stubbed my toe on the bannister. I stopped and cursed under my breath. The house was still and quiet, save for the sound of a somnolent sonata drifting through walls and doors. If a noise in the house had woken me, why hadn’t it disturbed anyone else? Could someone have been trying to break in? I doubted that immediately. Every window in the house was shut tight against November’s driven rain and the stalking menace of the Mythford Ripper. Whatever it was it wasn’t a burglary. In my head I played back what I thought I’d heard, tried to piece together sounds but wasn’t sure. Maybe something had fallen? Or a door slammed in a draft? If it was the latter, where had a draft that strong come from? I looked into the well of dark engulfing the lower level and listened. My dream was always filled with shouts and noises, screams and fear. Yes, the fear of being chased and falling, falling. I looked around me and along the landing. Pictures clung to the walls, familiar yet unknown. I descended the stairs.
My heartbeat increased with each step down. I was heading into an unknown situation in a fairly unfamiliar place. Okay, it was my dad’s house, but I hadn’t been here for years. And I knew in the living room, on the ground floor, there was a corpse. Suddenly, my still half-sleep mind fizzed with fantastic impossibilities of the undead rising to eat my brain. I shook those absurd thoughts away and carried on.
The living room door moved gently back and I could just make out the coffin. It was suspended between two small tables the Undertaker had leant dad and Linda, and looked surreal at first glance at one in the morning. The clock on the mantle-piece had luminous hands and mockingly pointed to the hour. I stepped into the room and noted the sealed lid with a brush of my hand. I knew it was sealed since I’d seen the undertakers secure it. The imagination’s a wonderful thing at that time of night. Then something moved in a corner. I nearly had a heart attack. A bulky shadow lurched forward. My breath hit a solid lump in my throat and my legs almost buckled under me. Then granddad moaned and the sense of horror holding me washed like tears in a shower. I breathed out and relaxed. Granddad had got out of bed, or not been put in, and probably knocked something over. That was it, that was the reason, that was what caused the noise which disturbed me. William of Ockham’s Razor. The simplest solution is the correct one. Or something along those lines. Still, my hands shook and butterflies continued an aerial assault in my abdomen. I went to the corner where granddad sat slumped in a chair.
“Gramps, is that you?” I said, whispering out of respect for the dead.
“He’s been took,” he said.
“Gramps, what are you doing here? You should be in bed.”
“He’s gone, Kevin. He’s been took, you know.”
“I know, gramps,” I said, switching on a light. We smarted in the glare: “Come on. Let’s get you upstairs. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”
“You know?” said granddad: “You know his gone?”
“Of course, Gramps,” I said, ushering him towards the door: “Come on.”
Granddad leaned on me. I could smell brandy. That annoyed me. Linda and dad knew the doctor said not to let him drink. Dad should know better. Granddad was his dad after all. He should be taking more responsibility instead lapping up the sympathy like half-starved cat. I glanced at the coffin as we headed for the door. It’d be gone soon, and so would I. Then I wondered how much longer granddad had. As we lurched our way through the living room I felt guilty, like some sort of traitor betraying a good friend. As we passed the casket I noticed something on the lid and on the carpet. As granddad staggered to the hallway I stepped over to examine it. Sawdust. Warren & Sons’ boys must have left it there when they secured the casket. A bit unprofessional, I thought. Granddad stumbled in the hallway. I switched off the light and went to help him.